Getting `Em While They're Young

She's only 14, but around her house in Yorktown, N. Y., Megan Kautz is already the consumer expert. After a careful search for the best price, Megan has chosen the family coffee (A&P's Eight O'Clock brand). This bargain maven also has a conscience, thanks to school lessons on the environment. Megan's mother, Pat Murphy, bought some Pantene hair spray--the aerosol kind. Says Megan: "I told her to get the pump version."

Meet some of the hottest targets in marketing. Millions of teenagers and children influence parents' choices of some very grown-up purchases, from software to the family vacation. Hefty allowances, gifts, and savings from odd jobs give preteens plenty of cash to spend on their own--$9 billion by some estimates. But that figure pales next to the household purchases children affect through their opinions and tastes. James McNeal, a marketing professor at Texas A&M University, estimates that 4-to-12-year-olds influence purchases of more than $130 billion of goods (table).

The pundits say the reshaping of American family life and leisure time has given kids this tremendous clout. Working and single parents are so time-pressed that they cede more influence on purchases to kids, who have the TV-watching time and the acute fashion antennae to figure out what's hot aly decisions than they were as children. And more teens--especially girls--are doing the family shopping. "The path to adult dollars through the child is an unexpected route," says Paul Kurnit, president of ad agency Griffin Bacal Inc., which tracks trends among kids.Small wonder that marketers want to reach these small wonders. At 17 resorts, Hyatt Hotels Corp. offers separate kids' programs called Camp Hyatt. They offer sports lessons, pottery classes, movies, and video games. But there's another motive: Hyatt later sends Camp Hyatt grads news of contests and certificates for resort attractions. "There's nothing like a seven-year-old asking 19 times, `When are we going back to that hotel?' to get parents to go back," says Marc Yanofsky, Hyatt's senior vice-president for marketing.

If you find all this somewhat disturbing, you're not alone. For one thing, parents already have a hard time fending off kids' demands for stuff. Because kids can be acutely status-conscious, those demands are often for the cool brand of the moment--Bausch & Lomb Inc.'s Killer Loop sunglasses, for example, hot among Southern California 15-year-olds and running up to $120.

MAIL FANS. Dealing with the requests of her four budding consumers is "an all-day process," says Mary Ann Margiotti, a mother in Plainsboro, N. J. The kids are even insisting that the family trade in its Taurus station wagon for a Dodge Caravan. Consumers Union, which publishes a version of its Consumer Reports for kids, recently printed a study attacking many programs, including various kids' clubs and marketer-sponsored school activities. "At a time when kids need to learn how to consume thoughtfully, numerous promotional messages are teaching the opposite," it says.

But kids' clubs and similar campaigns work because children, not yet jaded by decades of junk, love to get mail and booklets. According to Griffin Bacal, more than two dozen major corporations have started kids' clubs since 1989. Kraft General Foods Group has one for macaroni and cheese eaters, while Delta Air Lines Inc. has 700,000 children in its Fantastic Flyer club. Burger KingCorp. has 2.7 million members in its Kids Club, which publishes six newsletters "written" by various cartoon characters. Kids also get iron-on T-shirt logos and activity booklets. Analysts credit the clubs and tie-ins with popular cartoon figures with a pickup in business for the No. 2 chain.

Grocery stores are another way to reach children. According to Susan Alexander, marketing director for Time Warner Inc.'s Sports Illustrated for Kids, 78% of the magazine's subscribers--roughly ages 8 to 14--have been food shopping in the last month. And kids such as Hillary O'Rourke of Aurora, Colo., know a lot about stores. Hillary, 12, learned from TV ads about the Phar-Mor discount pharmacy chain before her mother. Now they shop there.

PLANTING SEEDS. More and more retailers are catching on. The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. has installed little-kid-size shopping carts in 100 of its stores. The idea: capture the imagination of junior shoppers and make parents grateful that the kids have something to do. And if the pint-size consumers toss a couple of extra goodies in their carts, well, A&P isn't complaining. Parents like the idea--at least sometimes. "My girls love them. It's one of the reasons I go there," says Anita Rouse, a shopper at the Allendale (N. J.) A&P. Gail DiBella, mother of two boys ages 5 and 4, isn't so sure about the carts: "My younger one uses them as a weapon," she says.

Such hazards don't slow down the stores. Memphis-based Piggly Wiggly Corp. will have Piggly Wiggly Pals Clubs in 150 of its 800 franchised supermarkets by winter. Kids have to get their membership cards stamped at the store to receive such items as the Earth Pals kit, which includes tree seedlings.

And, to paraphrase bank robber Willie Sutton, marketers are also going to school, because that's where the kids are. There's Whittle Communications' controversial Channel One. The venture, which gives schools TV equipment in exchange for the right to broadcast 2 minutes of commercials and 10 minutes of programming a day, has sparked charges of excessive commercialism. But more than 9,000 schools have signed up.

Meanwhile, publisher Scholastic Inc. creates school magazines and posters for corporations to sponsor. Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s Discover Card division supports Scholastic's Extra Credit, which teaches kids about personal finance and economics. The magazine features public service ads about the importance of education and community work--along with the Discover logo. So what if grade-schoolers aren't exactly creditworthy yet? "We're looking at 10 years and beyond," says Bill Hodges, marketing chief at Discover.

UNDER THE INFLUENCE. Other school efforts pay off faster. Apple Computer Inc. promotes its products to schools, both because they're a good market and because it's a way to affect parents' buying decisions. Laurence Faust, a 10-year-old in New Orleans, uses an Apple IIc at his school. His father, David, bought an Apple IIc-Plus for their home. Now, says David, "Laurence badly wants AppleWorks," a $140 software package that will help Laurence compose the novel he has started. "I'm going to spring for it," his father says.

Despite occasional criticism, marketers such as Burger King and Discover defend their strategies, saying they don't use the hard sell. What's true is that children, as current influences and future adults, are more and more important--and the battle to influence that influence is well under way.

      Estimated value of household purchases
      directly influenced by children 4 to 12
                            Billions of dollars
      FOOD AND BEVERAGES          $82.39
      PLAY AND LEISURE             16.86
      APPAREL                      13.16
      AUTO                          8.87
      ELECTRONICS                   3.57
      HEALTH, BEAUTY AIDS           3.06
      OTHER                         3.79
      TOTAL                      $131.70
      TOTAL                      $131.70