Gina Simmering-Lanterman's children always want to go grocery shopping where they are members of the store's kids' club. "It's a happy shopping experience when we go to a store where my kids get free food and a free T-shirt," says Simmering-Lanterman, who lives in Boulder, Colo. Her kids, ages 10, 12 and 16, gravitate toward certain sections in the store based on how the products are presented. They are drawn to clean displays and bright, colorful, kid-friendly packaging. When they were younger, they enjoyed pushing the little kids' grocery cart with a flag.
Natural foods retailers and manufacturers are aware that kids have become one of the primary customer demographics. Retailers are increasingly targeting children and teens through community outreach and in-store marketing strategies. By tapping into kids' enthusiasm for group-oriented activities, their attraction to cutting-edge trends and their influence on parental spending habits, the natural foods industry is benefiting from younger customers. But it is not yet clear how much of a financial impact kids are having on the industry. A 2006 study by the Hartman Group, a market research firm based in Bellevue, Wash., found only that children are playing an increasingly significant role in determining household attitudes and behaviors regarding health and wellness.
The Hartman Group study indicated that in some households, children are more aware and involved than their parents in dietary and nutritional standards due to school nutrition and health programs and media attention. Because children are effectively internalizing food and diet information, it is clear that the advantages of marketing to them are not simply financial. Exposing kids to natural foods teaches them that eating healthy can be tasty and fun, too, perhaps creating customers for life.
Earth Fare, a natural products retailer based in Asheville, N.C., developed the Red's Kids' Club—Red is a cartoon character with a tomato for a head—about a year and a half ago in response to the diabetes and obesity epidemic. The American Obesity Association reports that 30.3 percent of children ages 6 to 11 are overweight and 15.3 percent are obese. The incidence of child obesity has quadrupled over the last 25 years and has been shown to cause problems including asthma, diabetes, hypertension and sleep apnea. "We realized we needed to focus on educating kids about health in order to help combat the epidemic," says Susanna Aikin, community coordinator at Earth Fare's Columbia, S.C., store.
Through kids' programs that include Saturday morning cooking classes and seasonal events such as pumpkin decorating and a back-to-school cooking competition, Earth Fare is working to turn its programs into a lifestyle-changing event as well. "These activities make a positive impact because kids learn about nutrition and develop a taste for healthier foods," Aikin says. "There's evidence that kids are accepting and choosing natural foods when they return without their parents, and introducing their friends to the stores."
Bellevue, Ky.-based My Family Farm is also working to counteract child obesity. President Annie Bennett says the company started making kid-friendly snacks, including chocolate bear-shaped cookies and goldfish-shaped cheese crackers, to have a platform for educating parents and promoting kids' health. "Because national deaths from poor nutrition and inactivity are second only to [deaths from] tobacco smoking, I feel a responsibility to help children develop healthy eating habits," Bennett says.
My Family Farm and Barbara's Bakery, a manufacturer based in Petaluma, Calif., that makes kid-friendly cereals and cookies, use community outreach to introduce children and adults to their products. My Family Farm supports charities including Prevent Child Abuse America and Mothers Acting Up. Barbara's donates a portion of its profits to the National Wildlife Refuge Association and gives samples to kids' organizations and schools. "The key to making healthy food for kids is having a good-tasting product and colorful packaging that will attract children," says Kent Spalding, director of marketing for Barbara's.
Wild Oats Markets is using similar outreach strategies to teach about nutrition while capitalizing on children's preference for learning in a peer group. Through a school-based educational program called The Field Trip Factory, created by a firm based in Chicago, Wild Oats offers educational and fun field trips of its stores. "When kids learn with their peers, they are more inclined to love the samples we offer and to enjoy the experience of learning," says Sonja Tuitele, Wild Oats spokeswoman. "They will take pride in their own nutrition and health."
Tuitele says there are two reasons why the program is effective in creating a healthier customer base. First, it's an easy way for schools to teach about nutrition and the food pyramid while introducing kids to the stores. Second, research demonstrates that if kids are introduced to natural foods at a young age, they will favor those tastes as they grow up.
Schivonne Stephenson, a certified dietitian with the Women, Infants and Children program in Denver, confirms this, saying that between the ages of 18 months and 5 years, kids set the majority of their food preferences due to an adaptive response called neophobia, or fear of the new (in this case, food). Humans are genetically predisposed to accept the foods they are fed as young children into their diet.
Allison Trembly, marketing director at Whole Foods Market in Lakewood, Colo., says not only do her store's kid-focused programs introduce budding customers to the natural foods culture, but they have the side effect of drawing parents into the stores as well. Along with cooking classes for children and teens, Whole Foods in the Rocky Mountain region started a Kids' Club in 2004. "We think this will help kids look forward to a trip to the grocery store with their parents," Trembly says.
Whole Foods' Kids' Club members receive a free membership card, and every time they come into the store, they get to pick a free kid-friendly product, such as an apple or animal cookies. The key is that the child and parent have to locate the product on the shelf—each one is marked with a Kids' Club sign. "Because the parents have to go looking for the product with the child, it will encourage them to shop the store," Trembly says. "The club also encourages kids to tell their parents they want to go to the grocery store if they have had a pleasant experience before. The kids become repeat customers and so do their parents."
In fact, children's influence on their parents should not be underestimated. James McNeal, author of The Kid's Market: Myths and Realities (Paramount Marketing Publishing, 1999), estimates that children influenced $110 billion of parental spending on food and beverages in 1999. Within a culture that is saturated by conventional and junk-food marketing, consumers tend to assume that natural foods are healthier and more nutritious than their conventional counterparts. This allows natural foods retailers to occupy a unique niche within a U.S. food industry that spends billions every year marketing to children.
For natural foods retailers to live up to claims that marketing programs are making healthier kids, they have to teach about balanced nutrition and variety, says Stephenson of Denver's WIC program. "A pitfall of natural foods stores is the assumption that everything there is healthy," she says. "Kids need to be taught to make good decisions and choices." Stephenson suggests that educational programs include information on how to read nutrition labels and ingredient lists, and have kids pick all the elements that would make up a healthy, balanced meal.
For Simmering-Lanterman's kids, nutrition education seems to be paying off. "They understand the relationship between what you eat and how you feel," she says. "They always want some component of junk, even if it is 'healthy' cookies, but they also understand the need for a green vegetable at dinner. It's great that all the nutrition and health tips eventually begin to sink in."
Laanna Carrasco is a freelance writer in Boulder, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 44, 60