FREDERICKSBURG, VA. -- Brittany West, 5, and her cousin Sarah Boggs, 6, skip into Bonus Foods supermarket and quickly grab the two empty pint-sized shopping carts at the front of the store. After tossing their dolls into the two-foot-high metal baskets, the girls rush through the aisles to join Brittany's mother in the produce department.
From there, the two girls closely follow Sandra West as she shops, zooming their "kiddie" carts up and down the store. "I'll beat you," Brittany says, as she roars down to the end of the cereal aisle, with Sarah close behind.
Occasionally, the girls stop to load their carts with groceries handed to them by Brittany's mother. Sarah's cart is full of plums, yogurt and boxes of macaroni and cheese dinners. Brittany's is loaded with bananas and more boxes of macaroni and cheese. "Remember, that's what we're having for lunch!" Brittany exclaims when she sees the boxes.
The carts have been in Bonus stores for a little more than six months and were an instant hit. From Day One, "kids were lining up waiting for empty ones," one store clerk recalls.
The carts were also a hit with mothers and Bonus store executives. "We have seen more mothers coming in and more frequently," says Pam Bosmans, Bonus's director of operations. "I'm a mother myself and I know what it's like being in the grocery store with a bunch of kids. This gives the children something to do when in the store. It keeps the children happy and makes the mother happy as well. Even senior citizens like them. They've told me the carts are better than screaming children," Bosmans says.
The carts may be a small token for kids, but their presence represents a growing recognition by supermarkets and food manufacturers of the lucrative children's market.
"It's worth a lot of money to a lot of manufacturers," says Jim Donegan, national sales manager for McCain Ellio's, which makes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Pizza. "What's happening is that kids make a lot of decisions in grocery stores as to what mothers and fathers buy. Their influence on parental purchases is significant. Manufacturers are recognizing that."
So too are stores. As George Knippen, assistant director for grocery purchasing for Giant Food, notes, "We are always seeking new ways to stimulate sales and satisfy more consumers." That's why Giant not only has eagerly accepted many of the new just-for-kids products but also has come up with new programs to lure more children -- and parents, of course -- into its stores. Of these, the most notable is the "Apples for Students" campaign in which students can win free Apple computers for their schools merely by collecting Giant sales receipts. (The higher the dollar value of these collected receipts, the more computer equipment a school can obtain.) Safeway and many other major supermarket chains around the country are offering similar programs.
Meanwhile, a handful of chains, including Kings in New Jersey and Farm Fresh in Norfolk, have launched cooking classes for kids. "At Farm Fresh, we ... realize that today's children are tomorrow's consumers," Susan T. Mayo, vice president of consumer and public affairs, recently told a group of food industry executives. "We feel it is never too early to begin cultivating brand loyalty for products and services and developing positive reception of the Farm Fresh message."
Other chains, such as Shoprite in the Northeast, sponsor recipe contests for kids with the grand prize being a four-day trip to Disney World for four. (Second-, third- and fourth-place winners don't fare so badly either; these contestants receive a 19-inch color TV, a VCR and a compact disc player, respectively.)
Even gourmet food stores have gotten into the game. Last spring, Washington's Sutton Place Gourmet sponsored a Kid's Festival and brought in a rash of upscale products designed for children, including cookie mixes that sold for about $6 apiece. The three-store chain also sold junior-size sandwiches (including peanut butter and jelly) and some prepared foods, such as meatballs and chicken and dumplings, made with fewer spices. Now, Sutton Place has come up with a short carry-out menu for school lunches.
Meanwhile, the upscale West Point Market in Akron, Ohio, offers a "cookie credit" to young children as they enter the store, entitling young shoppers to free cookies when they leave. That's on top of miniature shopping carts and special birthday school lunch bags, complete with balloons.
"We get high-income business executives and professionals -- people with Mercedes. Now, we want to attract the station wagon group," says Russell Vernon, owner of West Point Market.
That's also what the food manufacturers are after -- and with a vengeance, as week after week a new kids-only product is unveiled, ranging from pizza in the shape of animals to sandwich meats with smiling faces. "It is one of the chief marketing niches of the '90s," says David Haley, senior brand manger for Marigold Foods Inc., which this year introduced Kemps Yogurt Jr's, four ounces of yogurt in such flavors as peanut butter and jelly, bubble gum and apple pie.
In some cases, the products are reformulated to meet kids' tastes. Kemps, for instance, made its new yogurt "super creamy" because "studies repeatedly show that kids don't like lumps of fruit," Haley says.
But many other products are merely the same old food (smaller or shaped differently, maybe) in new wrappings. The boxes, snazzier and brighter than the parental versions, come complete with games, stickers and perhaps even toys.
Behind the new products is a simple mathematical equation, as explained recently by Celeste A. Clark, Kellogg Co.'s vice president for nutrition, marketing and communications: "Today, there are approximately 31 million households with children; of these, more than 57 percent have two or more children. That all adds up to over 40 million hungry mouths and a tremendous opportunity."
Of course, cereal and candy companies have known for years that catering to little kids can mean big business. So too has Campbell Soup Co., whose Franco-American division has turned "Oh-Oh, SpaghettiO's" into an oft-repeated children's chant. Now Franco-American has TeddyO's, SportyO's and soon-to-be-released CircusO's. Meanwhile, Chef Boy-ar-dee has its cans of ABC's and 123's, Zooroni, Pacman, Smurfs, Tic Tac Toe's, Dinosaurs and Sharks.
With the continued and growing success of these products, other major food companies now are joining the tiny tot trend.
Conagra Inc., whose brand names Banquet, Armour, Patio, Chun King and Healthy Choice are well-known to American shoppers, now has a line of eight frozen TV dinners for children, called Kid Cuisine. The dinners, which range from chicken nuggets to macaroni and cheese with mini-franks, come with a vegetable, fruit and cookie, as well as a "Funpak" of games, stickers and puzzles "to entertain kids while moms are cooking."
Meanwhile, poultry producer and processor Tyson Foods Inc. has developed Looney Tunes, another line of eight frozen dinners, including Bugs Bunny Chicken Chunks, Speedy Gonzales Beef Enchiladas and Sylvester Fish Sticks.
Both these products are available nationwide. More limited in distribution is George A. Hormel & Co.'s Kid's Kitchen, which is sold at room temperature on the grocery shelves. These meals consist of seven main dishes, including chicken chow mein, ravioli and chunky vegetables and beef in sauce. With the entrees comes an invitation to join Hormel's Kid's Kitchen Club and receive a special insignia and newsletter.
Also sold on the grocery shelves is My Own Meal, a line of five dishes from turkey meatballs to chicken and rice. The meals were developed by Mary Anne Jackson, a former Beatrice Co. executive who saw a void in the market when she became a working mother five years ago. To make sure her babysitter served her daughter more than just hot dogs and canned spaghetti, Jackson would prepare special meals on weekends that could be served in her absence.
With the creation of My Own Meal, Jackson started a whole new product category that in less than two years has grown to $77 million in annual sales, according to the marketing research firm Arbitron/SAMI. That's up from $4 million a year ago.
It's no wonder then that a host of other kids products is in the offing. At the moment, the hottest new area is pizza, which study after study proves is kids' favorite food. In addition to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Pizza, there is Pizza for Kids, made by Chicago Brothers Pizza of San Diego. This pizza comes in the shape of animals: Rad Surf Dog (cheese), Totally Cool Cat (hamburger) and Boogie Bear (pepperoni). Meanwhile, another line of pizza, Kidstuff, is touting its taco and cheeseburger flavors.
Then there's dry pasta in all sorts of imaginable and unimaginable shapes. Mueller's, for example, now sells pasta in the shape of dinosaurs, teddy bears, jungle animals, monsters and outer-space animals. "The product has skyrocketed off the shelves," a Mueller's spokeswoman says, so the company is now introducing two new shapes: musical instruments and fish. Also expected to hit store shelves soon is Foodles, a line of bite-sized spaghetti, penne and fusilli packaged in colorful boxes that have games on the back.
As if that's not enough, Campbell Taggart Inc. is now testing in five cities Iron Kids, a soft white bread that, the company says, has added fiber and extra minerals to make it nutritionally equivalent to whole wheat bread. "We now give Mom permission to give her kids white bread," says Campbell Taggart's promotional material.
With one new product after another coming into the stores, "a whole new market that wasn't being satisfied is being carved out," says Giant's Knippen. Food manufacturers "keep adding items and they keep selling."
The reason, says Donegan of McCain Ellio's, is simple: The yuppie parent. "The baby boom generation tends to spend more on their kids than their parents did, and kids are more spoiled these days than they used to be. It's amazing to see how much money is being spent on the younger generation. Just look at the sneakers kids are wearing -- $150 shoes! So when parents see that their kid really wants something and it's only a $2 pizza, that plays in our favor."
Working parents in particular buy many of these items because they have too little time to cook and they feel guiltly not preparing fresh healthy meals, food industry officials add. In fact, many items are designed and promoted specifically with that guilt in mind.
"Everything we do is developed to help parents alleviate guilt feelings when they are not there to prepare home-cooked meals all the time," says Jackson of My Own Meal. "When you're working all day and running around, the last thing you want to do is prepare a full meal. But you still have to cook for the kids because you want them to eat well. My whole rationale was trying to help busy mothers give kids good wholesome foods."
Even so, many of these kids-oriented products have been criticized for their lack of nutritional value. For the most part, the meals "are no better than fast food," says Jayne Hurley, associate nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Many are high in fat and high in sodium, says Hurley, who notes that all but two of the Kid Cuisine meals derive more than 30 percent of their calories from fat. My Own Meal is the best, with brown rice and lentils and raisins, Hurley says. But, she adds, "it does include butter, cream and chicken fat, which kids don't need."
More nutritional children's meals may be on the way, however, with Conagra expected to soon announce a new line of healthful foods called Snoopy's Choice.
A slew of other new products also is on the way. As Martin Friedman, editor of New Product News, predicts, "The next area of attention is frozen microwaveable breakfasts for kids. To get kids started off in the day with a good breakfast, why not have pancakes and sausages, eggs and more in a convenient microwaveable package? There is always a time squeeze in the morning and a microwaveable kids' breakfast is a product that would do pretty well."
In fact, Joni Wilson, product manager of Tyson Looney Tunes, admits that her company is exploring such an idea. "We think there is an opportunity in breakfast and we're looking at that...and other concepts."