- The Washington Times - Monday, July 27, 2009

Retailers struggling to attract shoppers wherever they can find them are discovering the best way to a young girl’s purse is through her parents.

A growing army of tweens ages 8 to 14 has more money to spend, but parents control most of it, so retailers are attempting to influence them by offering more wholesome, modest products for which parents are willing to pay.

“Tweens wield $43 billion in spending power annually and influence the spending of billions more on everything from cell phones to vacations to automobiles,” New York consumer behavior and marketing firm EPM Communications Inc. said in a 2008 report.

“These 21 million U.S. children are still largely influenced and guided by their parents - but eager for independence and to be recognized as individuals,” the report found.

Many parents are stepping in to make sure their children are exposed only to age-appropriate products, as younger children are increasingly being targeted by advertisers.

“[Tweens] have become and continue to be involved in important household decision making,” said Ira Mayer, president of EPM Communications. “Retailers advertise to parents, but manufacturers advertise to kids to try to get them to make consumer decisions. But there are even efforts now to target both moms and children at the same time in different ways.”

Only Hearts Club, a California doll maker that aims to deliver a positive message to young girls, has a simple motto that attracts toy-seeking parents: “Celebrate girlhood.”

“There are products out there that are marketed to both teens and younger girls, so the things they see now at the age of 8 may be what 12- or 13-year-olds saw a decade ago,” said Len Simonian, president of Only Hearts Club. “But we want little girls to be little girls for as long as they can.”

Only Hearts Club targets girls from 4 to 10. The products are well-received by both mothers and daughters because they “let the girls do what they love to do in an age-appropriate manner.”

“Our dolls have stories that are real; they do ballet, horseback ride, have slumber parties and have pets. They simply let girls be girls because they have plenty of time to grow up” Mr. Simonian said.

Only Hearts Club dolls are carried in Target stores nationwide. They are also sold at Sullivan’s Toy Store on Wisconsin Avenue Northwest.

Owner Tam Sullivan chooses not to sell products such as MGM Entertainment’s popular Bratz dolls, which have been criticized for giving young girls an unrealistic and inappropriate perception of beauty.

“When we buy, we buy based on our preference, and what we feel is appropriate for our store. I always thought [Bratz dolls] were creepy,” Mr. Sullivan said.

But if a customer comes in looking for that product, he said, “We just don’t go there; we don’t explain; we don’t buy them.”

Instead, he redirects customers to the products he finds appropriate for young children.

Mr. Simonian said his company regularly receives passionate responses from parents. Mothers especially offer thanks for offering products that don’t encourage their daughters to dress provocatively or dwell on body image.

Mercedita Roxas-Murray, vice president of account management for RedPeg Marketing in Alexandria, acknowledged the importance of marketing to parents of younger children, as they are the primary buyers for this age group.

“There is a challenge when marketing to tweens, because it’s difficult to market directly to that younger age, so there is a lot of marketing to the parents,” she said.

By marketing to parents, “the parents are the validators,” she said. “It’s their money, so they are the ones who will ultimately say yes or no.”

Similarly, Deborah Hernan created the Ottilie and Lulu hair- and body-care products for a preteen market with both mothers and daughters in mind, allowing tweens to explore beauty products before the age of makeup.

“Anything that tries to address tweens is talking to them from the teenage perspective and teenage imagery,” Ms. Hernan said, explaining that tweens simply aren’t ready for the maturity level associated with being a teenager.

“Girls are highly impressionable, so I tried to give them something that helps them focus on a healthy sense of self. Many products are about making them older faster, but that’s just not what they or their mothers want,” she said.

“The dollars that this demographic of consumers spend predominantly come from the parents. And so with today’s economy, there may be a tightening of the belt or prioritization by the parents,” Ms. Roxas-Murray said.

Many mothers feel their daughters are targeted by ad campaigns that are too mature for tween girls.

That’s why Erin Boudreau, founder and lead designer of G is 4 Girl (www.gis4girl.com), launched her company last December: to create clean, unique and clever clothing for girls ages 9 to 13.

“We’re trying to send a message of empowerment for girls,” Ms. Boudreau said. “We want them to know and realize that they are smart, naturally talented, and can do anything if they put their mind to it.”

G is 4 Girl sells a line of clothing with such upbeat phrases as “You Grow Girl!”

Like Only Hearts Club, G is 4 Girl has received positive feedback from mothers who are happy to see products that don’t rely on princess or pop-star imagery.

“What’s important about our line of clothes is that the kids like the designs, but the mothers love the message,” Ms. Boudreau said.

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