Stores Build in Perks to Keep Families Coming

But reserved parking for pregnant shoppers draws fire from women's rights groups

At 9:30 on a drizzly Tuesday morning, dozens of preschool kids parade into West County Mall here in suburban St. Louis and plop down in front of still-shuttered stores.

They're members of the Kids' Club, which offers free weekly entertainment to attract kids and their caregivers into the mall. This week, Casey the Magician is putting on a show. Just as the stores begin to open for the day, Casey gives his finale and the crowds move down the hall for a snack at the food court.

Alicia Cop, a home day-care provider who watches two preschoolers in addition to her own two children, comes every week. After the event, she buys the children a snack before doing a little browsing. With four children in tow, Ms. Cop rarely makes a purchase on these visits, but she often returns to buy something later.

Across the country, retailers are looking for ways to build that kind of customer loyalty with families. They draw them in with clubs, special events, and a range of perks designed to make shopping with children a bit more manageable. Some malls have lounges for nursing mothers. Others offer play areas or supervised child care.

"Retailing is so competitive today that everyone is looking for ways to make the shopping experience more attractive to the biggest spenders," says Malachy Cavanagh of the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York.

At the West County Mall here, free race-car strollers are available for the asking. And a spacious "Family Restroom" offers a child-size toilet, changing table, and enough room for a double-wide stroller to make a U-turn. The mall also features a children's museum with rotating exhibits and activities that appeal to families.

At the Meriden Square Mall in Meriden, Conn., more than 1,000 families belong to the Stroller Club, entitling them to free strollers and up-front parking near the handicapped spaces.

Other large retailers, such as Sears and Toys 'R' Us, are catering to expectant mothers and shoppers with young children by reserving parking spots near the handicapped spaces.

Supermarkets like the idea too. After all, women with children make an average of 2.2 trips to grocery stores a week, according to the Food Marketing Institute in Washington.

For harried parents, it eliminates the precarious journey from a distant parking spot with a Houdini of a toddler in tow. For retailers, it's a small gesture designed to build loyalty and ultimately boost the bottom line.

In most cases, family parking is voluntary and not enforced. But in Dade County, Fla., a 1996 law requires businesses with more than 100 parking spots to reserve a few spaces for shoppers with children under 3. The county sells permits at 50 cents a month to families interested in using the special parking. Proceeds from the program go toward child-abuse prevention.

While many parents and expectant moms sigh with relief as they glide into their upfront parking spots, a small group of critics considers "stork parking" an insult. Mixed reviews from customers caused Target Stores to drop its special parking for pregnant women last year.

Much of the criticism is coming from women's rights groups. "I don't have any objection to being kind to pregnant women, but a pregnancy that doesn't create a disability probably doesn't need any special protections," says Kim Gandy, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women.

Legislation in several states that classified pregnant women as having impaired mobility and granted handicapped parking permits has stirred up controversy. In most cases, the bills have been withdrawn.

The Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., the nation's largest shopping center, offers 15 front-row parking spots for expectant moms or people with young children. Much - but not all - of the response has been supportive.

After visiting the mall as a tour guide, Virginia Watkins wrote to complain. "As a 1970s activist in the women's movement, I believe a policy like this has great potential to erode exactly what we worked so hard for and is taken for granted today," her letter said.

Mark Steck, another shopper who objected, wrote: "Since the beginning of time, it has been quite a natural phenomenon for women to conceive, gestate, deliver, and raise children. It seems very strange that now we must give them special status because they choose to take on this responsibility."

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