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Big decisions in little hands

Parents increasingly turn to their children when making decisions about what to buy.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 23, 2005



Stacy DeBroff considers herself a savvy shopper. But on some subjects, her 13-year-old daughter is even savvier, as Ms. DeBroff discovered when the two went shopping for a cellphone.

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Teenager Kyle Remy told her with cool authority, "Mom, these are the features you have to look for." Then, DeBroff recalls, "She started quizzing the sales rep about text messaging, the amount of photos you can send your friends for free, the quality of the pictures, the ring tones, the cover case choices, and the battery life. I was speechless. She was asking questions that I wouldn't have even known to ask."

DeBroff's 11-year-old son, Brooks Remy, is equally knowledgeable about the features he wants on an iPod.

Shopping - that all-American pastime - is undergoing a subtle but profound role reversal within families. Instead of the old dictatorial approach, which assumed that parents know best, there's a new mood of collaboration. Children are upstaging parents with a sophisticated knowledge of products, wielding impressive influence that goes beyond their own purchases to include family items.

"Historically, moms have made the majority of family purchasing decisions, but now it's the mom and kids," says Greg Livingston, coauthor of the forthcoming book, "Marketing to the New Super Consumer: Mom & Kid." Women account for 80 percent of retail spending, he adds.

It all adds up to big bucks. Children and teens influence $600 billion a year of their parents' money and spend $20 billion a year of their own, says Georganne Bender, a retailing analyst in Algonquin, Ill.

Consumer experts trace the generational shift in consumer decisionmaking to a variety of social changes. The Internet, they note, gives young people a wealth of information on products. Greater affluence also encourages families to spend. Even family bonds play a role.

"These kids like their parents," Ms. Bender says. "They like to hang out with their parents. They're partners picking something out together."

Mr. Livingston also sees a "much more involved parenting style." Noting that today's parents were the first of the latchkey children, he says, "Now that they are having kids, they're trying to make their family time as enjoyable as possible for everyone."

Because time is short in many two-career families and single-parent households, parents "try to make certain aspects of their life easier and smoother by getting consensus before moving forward," Livingston says. "That could be anything from dinner tonight to where to go on vacation."

Pressure from children has transformed the consumer behavior of parents - sometimes adding an element of tension, DeBroff says. While previous generations of offspring balked at shopping for household items, today's young consumers insist on going along, and not just for the ride.

"It used to be parents would just go out and get something without ever soliciting opinions," DeBroff says. "Now if you don't solicit opinions, there will be bitter recriminations and criticisms for the life of that object. They'll say, 'What were you thinking when you picked this car? Everybody else has a DVD player. Do you know how important this is?' "

As the author of "The Mom Club: 4,278 Tips From Moms to Moms," she has interviewed several hundred mothers. Many report similar experiences.

"If you go shopping for a couch, kids want to come along," DeBroff says. "They want to decide if it's ... comfy enough to sack out and watch TV on Friday nights. They might say, 'I just think the pillows aren't as comfortable as they could be.' "

Bender once watched a father and his 12-year-old son shop for a television. "The son was rattling off all these things about a television, and the features he wanted," she says. "The father asked, 'How did you know all this?' He said he went online."

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