Born to Buy: The Changing World of Children’s Consumption

This is the second discussion in a “book club” series on Born to Buy by Juliet Schor, which focuses on consumerism issues and young children. You can jump back to the first discussion if you’d like. This discussion covers the first part of the second chapter, “The Changing World of Children’s Consumption,” which appears on pages 19 through 29.

born to buyReading this section really pounded home one fact into my mind: this is a big issue. Hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake when it comes to the purchasing decisions made that involve your child, and given the unethical things people are willing to do for much tinier sums, how is it surprising that companies will target that huge market with whatever message will get their point across.

One scene from my own childhood kept coming back to me. Hardee’s, a fast food chain, was including small plastic figurines of the California Raisins in their kid’s meals. These little plastic toys, pressed out of a factory somewhere, likely cost Hardee’s a penny or two a pop. Yet I was insistent – insistent – on collecting all ten of them. I had to have them, and after several weeks of nonstop cajoling, I did eventually collect the complete set of them after lord knows how many trips to Hardee’s. Any time we’d get close, I’d start shouting loudly from the back seat, “IS THE NEW RAISIN OUT YET?” and not let it go until either my mother gave in, drove a bargain with me, or wound up ordering me that it was simply not happening.

I was ten years old and not really mature enough to consider the actual food quality and nutritional value of a fast food value meal, especially as compared to the value of a two-cent plastic raisin toy and the financial state of my parents. It’s not a value judgement I was equipped to make or even able to look at rationally, and that in itself is why I’m reading this book.

No wonder the marketers are all over the youth group.

Here are two bits that really stood out at me this time.

Do You Believe In Numbers?
How big is that market? On page 23, Schor drops the following fact:

[James] McNeal estimates that children aged four to twelve directly influenced $330 billion of adult purchasing in 2004 and “evoked” another $340 billion.

In other words, children aged four to twelve are primarily responsible for $670 billion in annual purchases. I tried to get a grasp on what that number actually meant, so I turned to census data from 2000 and assumed that all of the children between the ages of 0 and 9 there had become the set of children aged 4 to 12 in 2004 (in other words, they aged four years from 2000 to 2004). That data indicates that there are roughly 40 million children in that four to twelve age group discussed above.

This means that the average child (aged four to twelve) in the United States in 2004 – just one child – directly affected $16,750 worth of purchases. That’s in one year. If you choose to believe that there’s not money to be made in marketing to children, think again – if you can start a fad, you’ve got access to more money than you can imagine.

Think of that fact from a marketer’s perspective. They would only need to alter one dollar of that influence to bring in $40 million to their product. And what’s one dollar, really? Thus, a savvy marketer will pull out all the stops to convince that child to advocate for a particular brand – they’ll toss up commercials making that brand appear cool to kids, play self-esteem games with them, and even use sources that parents trust for marketing, like the Children’s Television Workshop or the Boy Scouts of America.

With Monopoly Comes Uniformity – and The Wal-Mart Versus Target Battle
On page 28, Schor throws down this comment after noting that most consumer industries are dominated by two or three companies:

Economic theory predicts that when two opponents face off, the winning strategy for both entails their becoming almost identical. This model explains why gas stations congregate at intersections, why Democrats and Republicans cleave to the political center, and why Coke and Pepsi are hard to tell apart with a blindfold. What it means for consumers is that true variety and diversity of products is hard to find.

In other words, when there are just a small number of companies competing in a market – and that’s true for a lot of specific items in the United States – those companies will find the optimum strategy for their product that ensures the balance of sales and expenses that results in the most profit. Once that point is discovered, everyone will trend there, leaving marketing being the only major difference between the choices.

The only real difference between Wal-Mart and Target is marketing. Some people pride themselves on shopping at Wal-Mart because they get “bargains,” when quite often Wal-Mart’s prices are basically the same as their competitor. On the other hand, some people won’t shop at Wal-Mart because they don’t treat their employees well – when, in truth, Target does the same things and gets a free pass. The difference is all in the marketing – Wal-Mart has been more directly confrontational with organized labor, so organized labor spends marketing dollars trying to create a more unfriendly image for Wal-Mart, when the truth is that almost all of their practices are shared by Target, too.

The comments in this thread basically illustrate my point. For the most part, the commenters are just parroting the marketing of the two companies. The “Target is classier than Wal-Mart” marketing meme is spread far and wide and justified in many creative ways – it’s a matter of brand perception and marketing, not the reality of walking into the actual stores themselves. In the area where I live, the nearest Wal-Mart is a substantially nicer shopping experience than the nearest Target, for example.

In short, I’m completely indifferent about which one I would choose. They do so many things identically that it makes little difference which one I choose to shop at, so I generally choose the one that offers the best prices on the items I’m buying. This is something I hope to teach to my children: brand doesn’t always mean what everyone says it means.

The next discussion, coming in three days, will cover the second half of the second chapter of Born to Buy (“Playing Less and Shopping More”), covering pages 29 through 38.

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  1. Trent,
    The argument always lies in what individuals perceive as valuable.
    You saw the California raisins as “valuable”.
    Bargain hunters see Walmart’s value proposition in the “Roll-back”, while Target shoppers admire the simplicity and cleanliness of the Target brand position.
    The whole idea behind proper brand positioning of large retail outlets is to make the products almost secondary. I know it sounds corny, but think about it. The products, as you mention, are almost identical in every way – the brand positioning of the company apparently has more influence than we thought.

  2. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “the brand positioning of the company apparently has more influence than we thought.”

    That’s exactly the point. I never really considered how much importance brand positioning really has. What difference does the label make if what’s inside is just the same as what’s inside something else?

  3. Aryn says:

    The whole Wal-Mart vs. Target advertising discussion is interesting. I wrote a paper on it once for school! Target’s ad team is much better at building a certain air of “hipness and quality.” Wal-Mart’s attempts to be cool just make them look geeky, while Target succeeds at driving well-heeled urban consumers into their stores.

    It doesn’t just work on consumers though – it’s also spread to institutional investors who view Target’s stock as a better value because their products are perceived to be better (I heard this expert a few years ago, so this might have changed).

  4. chris says:

    I’d be curious ins eeing some sort of nationwide survey on what store seems nicer once you walk in between target and walmart.

    for all I know it might just be that the 4 or 5 walmarts I’ve been to in my life just happen to be the most depressing in the nation, while the 10 or 11 targets I’ve been to have been the nicest in the nation.

    Obviously my experience is limited and yours is as well. So is it marketing that’s the difference? Or is it presentation.

    In my experiences most targets are like the person who wore a dress shirt and slacks to an interview, while most walmarts have been like the kid with a tshirt only partly tucked into his jeans.

    Is that marketing or is it corporate culture or is it clientele? I think it’s a combination of all three personally.

    I also think it was a mistake to throw it into this discussion cause it will overwhelm the rest of the discussion :P

  5. chris says:

    shoot, wish i could edit the last comment. I just wanted to add that, when I was a kid I went to Gemco because that’s where my mom took me. I personally can’t remember there ever being and ad for gemco and it was absorbed by taget in a hostile takeover.

    What I was influenced by as a kid were toys r us commercials and the sears big book.

    I also remember walmart commercials years before I remember ever seeing a target commercial. Of course those walmart commercials I remember were the “made in usa with pride” commercials.

    I do remember seeing the happy face and rolling back prices commercials before I ever went to a walmart. then upon actually going to one on a trip to utah finding it to be one of the most surreal experiences in my life.

  6. Meg says:

    I don’t know what Walmarts and Targets are like where you are — but neither do you know what they’re like where I live or the where the other commenters live. To accuse commenters of “parroting” marketing, to say that there’s no difference except for marketing… well, it’s a rather insulting presumption.

  7. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “don’t know what Walmarts and Targets are like where you are — but neither do you know what they’re like where I live or the where the other commenters live. To accuse commenters of “parroting” marketing, to say that there’s no difference except for marketing… well, it’s a rather insulting presumption.”

    That’s 100% exactly my point. If you go into a random town and choose either Target or WalMart based on a general preconception about the stores, you’re using marketing to make a significant purchasing decision.

    You’re right, I don’t know what Target and WalMart are like where you’re at – but I do know that my idea of what they’re like is based almost entirely on their marketing strategies.

  8. My earliest memory of marketing to kids was Saturday morning cartoons. they always had the “good” commercials. I would try to get my mom to watch with me so I could point out everything I wanted.

    It has really come a long way since I was a kid.

    Best Wishes,
    D4L

  9. chris says:

    trent, meg’s point is pretty much the same as mine. If i went to where you live and had to go to a target or walmart to get something (let’s assume they’re equally convenient) I’m not choosing target based on target’s marketing. I’m choosing it based off prior experience of targets and walmarts in my area.

  10. I don’t care either way about Target/ Walmart and choose according to specific purchases.

    “This is something I hope to teach to my children: brand doesn’t always mean what everyone says it means.” Exactly. It is also very important to teach them the very same thing about advertising.

    My kids are 6 and 8 and they already know that companies need our money and so are trying to get us to buy stuff that we don’t really need. They know that there’s often a gap between a product’s image in an ad and the reality of that product’s functionality and quality.

  11. Penguin says:

    @Trent: “That’s exactly the point. I never really considered how much importance brand positioning really has. What difference does the label make if what’s inside is just the same as what’s inside something else?”

    Interestingly, it can make a difference. In several university research studies, patients taking brand-name OTC pain medicines (e.g. Tylenol, Advil) experienced more pain relief than those taking the generic brand of the exact same pill. Marketing affects the mind!

  12. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “I’m choosing it based off prior experience of targets and walmarts in my area.”

    OK, in your area, which do you choose to shop at? Likely, you chose Target because you had a notion that it was “cleaner,” and you went to Target with the cue to notice the clean aspects. Similarly, you had the notion that WalMart was “bad” and you went there with the cue to notice the bad aspects. Thus, your opinions were reinforced.

    If you hear lots of little whispers that something is bad or dirty, you’ll begin to see where it is bad or dirty. If you hear lots of little whispers that something is upscale, that’s what you’ll see, too.

    Why do you think Tiffany’s can charge $1,000 extra for their jewelry to come in a blue box?

  13. No Trent, that’s not 100% your point.

    I’ve been to both plenty of times to make a pretty accurate comparison (even when I didn’t have television service to inundate me with advertising).

    I understand the powerful effect of marketing, but there is a real, physical difference here and likely in other places: bathrooms that are almost unusable they smell so bad vs. nice usuable facilities, aisles heaped with stuff and misplaced items vs. clear aisles, spilled goods and open packages vs. clean shelves, checkouts that take 10 minutes vs. checkouts that take 2.

    Now, I’m not a store snob. I’m very price conscious and willing to put up with a lot to get a good deal. I’ve shopped at Walmart and Target both. And I shop a lot at Ross nowadays despite the fact that the atmosphere is Walmart-like. I shop at Ross, though, because the fashion brands there are better — and not just because of the name, but because they genuinely look and feel better. I know Walmart brands, I wore them for many years and it just never worked well for me.

    All else being equal, why not choose the better atmosphere of Target over Walmart, though?

    But things aren’t equal — because Target still has better style (in general) than Walmart when it comes to clothes and home decor. Of course, that’s a matter of taste, but it’s my taste so I’m entitled.

  14. Chris,

    I think you’re right, it is a combination of things like corporate culture and as part of that, the people who work there.

    Here, there are very noticeable differences in the make up of the employees at the two stores, particularly age wise.

    And yes, experience is very important to me when making decisions.

  15. Todd says:

    I would posit that there IS a difference in SOME areas of their merchandise, and that difference is used to drive much of the marketing. For example, Target used to have it’s own “in house” modern design label (some guy’s name) that they would offer many home items in, like wall clocks, desk clocks, lamps, etc.. Even though I no longer see his name advertised, it is OBVIOUS to me that Target offers a much more aesthetically pleasing line of the items just mentioned, not to mention, their selection of furniture items.

    Wal Mart barely carries any furniture, and yet, Target carries something like a mission line, an “expresso/mocha” finish line, not to mention a couple more divergent wood/wood finish lines. We’re talking desks, bookcases, nightstands, armoires, recliners (in some cases), and the list goes on. They also offer a much broader array of kitchen table chairs and bar stools.

    This all without even considering Target’s branded/endorsed soft goods lines.

    So, I don’t agree that (unless every Wal Mart I’ve ever been in is below the corporate average) Target and Wal Mart differ only in advertising, or that they are primarily the same.

    Just my observation, and I don’t have a financial interest in either store.

  16. adverlicious says:

    Adding to the conversation, here’s 40+ examples of how Target is marketing itself online:

    http://adverlicio.us/topic/target

    (hint: fun, trendy, hip … fashionable)

    vs. Wal-Mart:

    http://adverlicio.us/industry/wal_mart

    (hint: some good stuff, but they’re clearly following the leader)

  17. Kate says:

    “I was ten years old and not really mature enough to consider the actual food quality and nutritional value of a fast food value meal, especially as compared to the value of a two-cent plastic raisin toy and the financial state of my parents.”

    Nutritional issues aside, I’m guessing that most ten-year-olds who are required to genuinely earn their spending money, and required to pay for their own extras out of their own funds, would easily understand the relatively low value of a cheap plastic toy. Especially in a family where the parents don’t simply cave to shut the kids up when they howl for this sort of thing. When little Johnny sweats for an hour to earn his dollar and knows that a free (to him) dinner will show up on the table at 6 o’clock, he’s going to be smart enough to figure out the real “value” of a happy meal and a piece of plastic.

    Also, I don’t shop at either Target or Wal-mart. Like you, I think they are both very bad corporate “neighbors” and there’s no substantive difference between them.

  18. luvleftovers says:

    “Nutritional issues aside, I’m guessing that most ten-year-olds who are required to genuinely earn their spending money, and required to pay for their own extras out of their own funds, would easily understand the relatively low value of a cheap plastic toy. Especially in a family where the parents don’t simply cave to shut the kids up when they howl for this sort of thing. When little Johnny sweats for an hour to earn his dollar and knows that a free (to him) dinner will show up on the table at 6 o’clock, he’s going to be smart enough to figure out the real “value” of a happy meal and a piece of plastic.
    – Kate

    Oooo, good point Kate. My parents did a lot of this when we were kids so I think that helped us a lot.

    I despise Walmart and will not buy from Target after reading this article. I’m so glad that injured employee will get to keep her $. My area just recently squashed Walmart from putting a store here and the rest of NYC is doing the same.

    I prefer to shop at stores where I feel like I’m getting good quality and the staff is probably being treated fairly. I may pay a little more, but in the long run it may be costing me much less. (longer wearing, employess might not end up unemployed, on welfare, food stamps, etc.)

    Plus, I just feel better about it. I’m also going to do some research to try to find more products that are made in the USA.

  19. Mia says:

    I purchased an educational magazine for my oldest daughter when she was eight years old called “Comprehension Quarterly”, and they had a section about marketing that was very well done. We talk about commercials and ads often.

    As for the Wal-Mart versus Target debate, I think they’re both equally despicable. Oh, the shopping experience is comfortable enough. The Wal-Marts in my area are rearranging their merchandise and putting in nice wood floors in the clothing section. There’s the smell of McDonald’s fries and Wal-Mart deli fried chicken wafting through the store. The produce is bright and yummy looking. The bathrooms are cleaned, it seems, every hour. They, too, are carrying some of the nicer furniture in the latest styles.

    The Target store is the same as Wal-Mart, only with the smell of Starbucks and soft pretzels wafting through the store. I must admit their little girls’ clothes (I have three girls) are less revealing and trashy looking than Wal-Mart’s Mary Kate and Ashley brand, but I tend to associate that with the brand rather than Wal-Mart itself.

    With all of that pleasant atmosphere it’s almost possible to forget some of the unfair things they do to employees. In fact, one of our neighbors works at Wal-Mart and I have posted here before about how wasteful he told me they are. I have no doubt that Target is the same way. However, if we boycotted every company that did it’s employees dirty these days, we’d all be growing our own food, weaving our own cloth, making our own clothing, and basically living like pioneers.

  20. elizabeth says:

    Trent, I am a little disappointed in the link to the article about Target vs. Walmart. It was from 2005. I know that is a little old for my taste on a company since things change.

    Here is what I know: Target does know offer health insurance to their part-time employees. You have 6 months plus a ton of hours to be eligible.

    My husband worked for Target for 2 years. Before he started, I was a Target shopper and he was a Wal-Mart shopper. When he started working there, he became a Target shopper and I switched to Wal-Mart. I was so sick of all of the garbage that I had to listen to when he came home. We are better than Wal-Mart this, we are better than Wal-mart that. So, we visited 8 Wal-Marts and 8 Targets in three states (we were going on vacation). Our Wal-Mart by our house is cleaner (I was suprised and thrilled). Most of the Wal-Marts and Targets were about the same. I see NO distiction. Each store should be individually chosen.

    As a side note to Trent – I started making my own bread and it is glorious. I borrowed my mother’s bread machine, but still no extra cost to me.

  21. chris says:

    yes trent, I had a notion that target was cleaner. 1. I went to the walmar tin my area the day it opened and the floors were already dirty, and the clientele was… well i won’t go into it, but basically I had no idea these kind of people lived in my area.
    2. The local target remodeled (most likely in response to the new walmart) and since then has been spotless.
    3. The local walmart is cluttered. there are items strewn about, very little in it’s proper place. target has much less of this
    4. Target in general is cheaper. this is one area where I will give you credit. due to advertising I had the perception that walmart was cheaper, because that’s thier marketing strategy, plus target is so nice it can’t be cheaper. Turns out I was wrong, in general products at target are cheaper than walmart.

  22. Lynn says:

    The Target near my house is significantly nicer than the skanky Wal-Mart across the street. On a related note, I did 6 months of time at Wal-Mart when I first got divorced, trying to afford a car I got stuck with. We all called it “retail hell”.

  23. J. says:

    Trent,

    I agree with your larger point about advertising, and also your point that as corporate citizens target & walmart are almost equally (ir-)responsible.

    But I gotta call shenanigans on the cleanliness factor. I’ve been to dozens of both stores in various parts of the country. It’s true you can find a Target dirtier than the cleanest Walmarts. But there is no Target I’ve run into even remotely as skanky (& cluttered & crowded & poorly lit) as the average (non-Super) Walmart. Now this probably has a lot to do with location & clientèle. but it also has much to do with corporate emphases.

    this then further interacts with their advertising. but it’s not as simple as either one lying about their strengths. no, they take their brands’ strengths, plus perceived strengths, and bolster them with advertising.

  24. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “But I gotta call shenanigans on the cleanliness factor….”

    But that is marketing – 100% marketing. Target is simply better at marketing. If you don’t think so, you’re fooling yourself and falling into the trap. Let me explain.

    There are more WalMarts in America than Targets. That’s because there are a lot of WalMarts in towns without Targets, but not vice-versa.

    In towns without competition, the owner of the WalMart doesn’t have to worry about marketing himself well – it’s the only shop in town. Why spend big money on cleaning? Do the minimum and that’s good enough.

    In towns with competition, both stores have to raise their game, and they do. They need to market themselves well to their shoppers or else their shoppers will go down the street to the competitor.

    Now, if you visit a random Wal-Mart, it *is* likely to be dirtier than the average Target because of the competition factor described above. If I’m used to the cleanliness and presentation of WalMarts and Targets in towns with competitions and then visit a non-competition WalMart, I’m going to be repulsed, get a bad image of WalMart in my head, and avoid it in a large town where I can easily go to a Target.

    That’s all marketing, and it’s something WalMart doesn’t do well. They don’t use their marketing dollars to crack down on the unclean branches in smaller towns, and those do a lot to contribute to the “unclean” WalMart meme.

    Now, when people go to a town with a WalMart and a Target, they’ll often choose the Target because it’s cleaner, even though that’s not necessarily the case.

    It’s all in the marketing.

    If WalMart wanted to turn that around, they’d put some serious weight on individual WalMarts to clean up their act. They’d institute a program where shoppers could report uncleanliness, and they’d reward branches in small towns that met thresholds of cleanliness reporting. They’d offer “cleanliness guarantees” to customers, saying things like “If you visit a Wal-Mart and aren’t completely satisfied with the cleanliness of the visit, show what you don’t like to the manager and you’ll receive a $5 off coupon for your next visit.” THAT’S how WalMart could use marketing to turn this around.

  25. Robert says:

    What I find interesting reading through the comments is how defensive people can get when their views of “how things are” are challenged. Are our preferences based solely upon marketing? Of course not. Our views are based upon many things including our experiences with the store or product in question.

    No matter how well designed a marketing campaign is, it cannot take an extremely negative perception (such as those that many people have associated with Wal-marts) and instantly turn it positive. What it can do (and often does far too successfully) is slightly adjust that perception in the direction the advertiser wishes. Upwards in the case of a store advertising to you, downwards if it’s a political attack ad, etc.

    If Wal-mart or Target or any store ran an ad that simply said “Buy our junk because we said so”, it would mostly be rediculed and ignored, because the ad would be attempting to overtly change something that people generally resist changing, namely their perceptions of a given product or store.

    And yet, that same message of “But our junk because we said so” is really at the heart of all advertising. The true power of ads comes in subtle, gradual changes. The advertisers try to build associations of one sort or another, associations that will alter our overall buying patterns given enough time. They try to build an image that given product or store is “better”, often for reasons that really make little sense if you tried to analyze them. Is Mr. Clean more effective at the job of cleaning because a cartoon character on the bottle winks at you? Is Pine-sol really more effective at cleaning because it leaves a residue that smells like the sap of a tree that many people only encounter at Christmas?

    But make no mistake, advertisers are very successful at their jobs. If you go to someone and say “How about getting a burger for lunch?” the first thing most people will think of is one of several fast-food restaurants that specialise in burgers (McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, roy Rogers, etc.) A few might think of a more upscale restaurant like Uno’s or Fuddrucker’s. I suspct that only a small handful will stop and think of a pack of frozen beef patties already in their freezer, ready to be tossed on the stove at a moments notice. This is despite the fact that those burgers can be just as good, prepared just as fast, and are usually less expensive than the ones most restaurants serve.

    While I doubt that marketing is the sole reason for this phenomenon, I am sure that it has a lot to do with the association that leads to that first thought. And often it is the first thought that pops into our minds that sets the parameters for our final choice on what to buy and where to buy it.

  26. chris says:

    hmm, maybe the issue I have has to do with the fact that target outnumbers walmart by probably 10-1 in california. I know of 4 targets within 5-10 minutes and one walmart. I also know of about 20 targets and 1 more walmart within 40 miles.

    In the end walmart and target, to me, are not even competitors because of this disparity.

    it’d be like trying to peg fry’s electronics as a competitor to bestbuy, again there is about a 20-1 disparity in best buys to fry’s and despite having a basically similar stock they don’t feel like competitors.

  27. onineko says:

    re: the Wal-Mart vs. Target discussion … In California, Target has been around longer than Wal-Mart, and I must admit that when Wal-Mart began building stores here, I took a snobby attitude towards them and refused to shop there. But my mom convinced me to go, and I was impressed that it was clean and well-stocked, and the staff were friendly and accessible. The main problem I had was clientele. Kids roaming around unsupervised, and even adults who were loud and boisterous in their comportment. With Targets, I find the quality of the stores themselves to be hit-and-miss. The one we live near is in a nice neighborhood, but the clothing selection always seems poor, compared to other Targets in less nicer neighborhoods by where I work, and it always seems understocked. On the other hand, the atmosphere is much quieter and the customers generally more mature. Even if the the stores are virtually similar, their marketing affects my shopping experience by the types of people they attract. I know I could save money and get good products at Wal-Mart, but I don’t go there often becase I hate dealing with the people who shop there. I opt for Target, even though the store itself doesn’t always deliver. That’s why I opt out of shopping altogether as much as I can and shop online.

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