Great, just what the younger generation needs: yet another way to spend Mom's or Dad's money--online and out of sight.
Typically, an 11-year-old dying to buy, for example, a Katrina skirt from delias.com must produce a parent's credit card number to complete the sale. This forces her to ask a parent first, assuming she's an honest type. And it gives her mom or dad the chance to come back with that dreaded question: Do you really need another dress?
That conversation doesn't have to take place now, thanks to the virtual wallets started independently by three San Francisco companies. Here's what happens instead:
A parent or other adult deposits funds in the name of a child into the account of one of these new ventures: iCanBuy.com, DoughNet.com or RocketCash.com. The kid can then click on to the site and buy anything the site carries--from clothing and CDs to books and games--until she has spent all the money in the account.
At iCanBuy, she will purchase merchandise that the iCanBuy staff has collected. At DoughNet or RocketCash, she will be sent to the actual home pages of fogdog.com, etoys.com and other online retailers.
Launched within the last six months, the three sites pulsate with fluorescent colors, quirky contests and hip ads. iCanBuy beckons with a list of its 10 top-selling items as well as a celebrity wish list. (Pop singer Britney Spears, we learn, would love to own a green silk gingham tote bag from outlet.com. At $34 a tote, she could probably afford 100 of them.)
The sites are so new that many Washington-area kids and parents haven't heard of them, and some parents contacted didn't want to.
"I might as well say to my kid, 'Go play in traffic, I'm busy,' " said Diane Leatherman, mother of 13-year-old Blythe from Cabin John.
Nancy Gravatt, a Herndon mother, worried about the lure for younger children. Daughter Robin O'Connell, 16, agreed: "They're trying to make spending sound like a big game, and it isn't a big game."
Robin also was bothered by the parents-vs.-kids tone of the sites. "What's this 'Ditch Mom and Dad' stuff?" she said, referring to a line at DoughNet that instructs kids how to set up their account. "If you're ditching Mom and Dad, where's the money coming from?"
The California entrepreneurs are betting that it's precisely the (relative) independence kids enjoy at the sites that will attract them and their money. These cyberexecs know the statistics: Of the 70 million young people younger than 18, almost half are online, according to a Greenwich, Conn., research company, and the number is increasing steadily. Kids spend or influence the spending of about $200 billion a year, but only a fraction of that occurs on the Internet--so far.
All three companies have engineered into their systems a certain amount of oversight for the 'rents who pay the bills. For example, parents can review account activity at the three sites to see what their kids have purchased, from whom, and for how much. They can screen out a retailer they do not like, and at iCanBuy and DoughNet, they can review a child's selection before purchase. Such devices provide "more control than parents have if their kids shop at the mall," said Carol Kruse, co-founder of RocketCash.
At iCanBuy and DoughNet, a kid can deposit money into a bank account and donate money to charity. iCanBuy's Herman and Ginger Thomson, co-founder of DoughNet, say that encouraging kids to become savvy money managers was their number one goal. "We wanted to create a broad investment engine," said Herman, who has customers as young as 5.
"Shopping," said Thomson, "was the carrot."
Kruse and her RocketCash co-founder Jeffrey Mason had no such educational aspirations. "Kids come to RocketCash to pick up their wallets and go shopping," Kruse said. "Why should they not get the same discounts, selection of merchandise, and convenience that adults enjoy online?"
Why indeed, asks Andre Procope. A 15-year-old from Prince George's County, he purchased Nintendo 64 games and headphones through iCanBuy that he couldn't find in stores. "My mom found out about the site and told me. It's pretty cool," he said.
But anti-consumption advocates such as Eric Brown give plenty of reasons why kids shouldn't be shopping online. "We are already raising a generation of hyper-consumers and this just makes it easier," said Brown, communications director for the Center for a New American Dream, a nonprofit based in Takoma Park. "Advertisers and marketers understand that if they can do an end run around parents, children will spend more money than they should. This is the poster child for the perfect marketing technique."
Neither Drew Johnson, 15, nor his mother Nancy, feels that way. Residents of suburban Denver, they read about the Web sites in their local newspaper, scanned them and chose RocketCash because it offered more retailers. Drew now turns money he earns by baby-sitting and mowing lawns over to his mom, who credits his online account. RocketCash gives him "independence without being too independent," he said.
Drew's 9-year-old brother also has a RocketCash account and is learning to budget his money, Nancy Johnson says.
"It makes them autonomous, it's really theirs to do what they want," she said. Nancy also reaps a benefit: "It means I don't have to drive them all over the place."
Driving her kids all over the place is what Jennifer Sevier of Rockville says she would miss if her kids shopped online. A banker in the District, she says she doesn't have enough time as it is with her 12-, 14- and 16-year-old boys.
Earlier this week she took off a day from work to drive them to Lake Forest Mall for school clothes and supplies. She set parameters: two pairs of shorts, two shirts, a pair of pants for church. Christian and Mark, the two older boys, took off without her. Jonathan hung back and was treated to a visit at Radio Shack, where he bought his heart's desire: a battery charger.
Around noon they reconvened and the boys argued over where to go for lunch. By midafternoon, tempers were getting shorter and it was time to leave.
"I had to come home and lie down," Savier admitted. "These trips are not always pleasurable."
But Jonathan had made her day. A non-shopper by nature, he turned to her as they arrived home and said, "Thank you. I had a great time."
"If I had let him go online to shop, would he have come to me and said 'Thank you?' " she said. "Maybe. But somehow I doubt it."
CAPTION: RocketCash.com and ventures like it let kids shop until they reach a limit set by parents.