Big decisions in little hands

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

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.

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."

Even microwaves generate opinions from young shoppers, DeBroff says. "They want the feature that says 'Popcorn.' "

To encourage children to shop, retailers such as Bombay Kids and Pottery Barn Kids appeal directly to young customers. "Children decide what kind of furniture they want, and what color they'd like the walls and rugs to be," Bender says. Toyota has marketed its Scion model at skateboarding contests. Commercials for its Sienna minivan also encourage children to design their own car, Livingston notes.

Whatever the item on a family's shopping list, DeBroff sees a shift: "Parents now become the budgeters and kids drive the choices within that budget."

At the supermarket, Livingston says, a mom might choose a category of food - yogurt, perhaps - and then let her children choose the brand and flavor they want. She reasons, "Why would I want to buy food that my kids won't eat?"

As parents solicit opinions, some are charting new territory.

"We care what our kids think in a way our parents' generation did not," says Jenifer Lippincott, the mother of two teenagers and author of "7 Things Your Teens Won't Tell You (And How to Talk About Them Anyway"). "We involve our kids, we negotiate a lot more." But that can have a downside too. "They know we are willing to negotiate. They're so smart and savvy that they expect to have that opportunity to negotiate, to have input and say."

Even compromises can be wearing. Speaking of the cellphone she and her daughter bought, DeBroff says, "It had so many fewer features than she wanted, and so many more features than I ever thought I would agree to. I caved on text messages and pictures. We both walked away feeling profoundly compromised."

On the plus side, Livingston sees youthful consumerism as an opportunity to teach children how to be good decisionmakers. "That's happening at earlier and earlier stages. [Parents] want kids to be able to make good decisions."

For parents like Amy Racina, those well-reasoned decisions can be useful to the family. "One of the greatest lessons of parenthood has been that I do not always know best," says Ms. Racina, a businesswoman and single mother in Healdsburg, Calif. "When I am considering a purchase of electronic or computer equipment, I first consult my teenage son. He knows my personality, assesses my needs, considers the available technology, asks about my budget, then makes an informed decision about what I should buy. He is rarely wrong."

Most parents have limits, of course. Kathy Doyle Thomas, executive vice president of Half Price Books in Dallas, has three children ranging in age from 11 to 17. "They went car shopping with me, so I could see if they fit in the back seat," she says. "I knew I'd be passing the car down to them when it is their time to drive. I like including them. I listen, but that doesn't mean I take their advice all the time."

Whatever the items on a family's list, Lippincott says, children need to understand that the family is a unit. "Certainly everybody has a say, but some decisions are not appropriate for them to make. They certainly can have input. We want them to feel that they're listened to. But ultimately there are factors that weigh into family life that kids don't always have a perspective on."

DeBroff also emphasizes the value of listening. "It is our job as parents to hear out the consumer requests of our kids," she says. "It makes them engaged. You can have interesting conversations about what things are worth, the value of money, and what trade-offs they're willing to make for the things they want most. They bring knowledge to the table."

But listening does not mean accommodating every young consumer's wish. When a parent says no, DeBroff finds that humor helps. "Sometimes you just laugh and tell them, 'When you're grown up, I'm sure you can buy a car that has 17 TVs in it.' "

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