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*This is an excerpt from our recent white paper, Top 10 Global Consumer Trends for 2017. Download the white paper for more insights on key consumer trends.

Consumers in Training

Today’s family demands are launching youngsters into consumption at an earlier stage. Typical factors include parents struggling with work / life balance and a consequent greater consumer reach for paid-for convenience, extended online time for all and youngsters staying in the home, often into their 20s and beyond. This reality empowers children with greater agency — not just as family consumption influencers, but consumers in training. Increasingly, the input of children in purchasing decisions is welcomed by their parents, rather than being perceived as a nuisance. The parent-child relationship, characterised by delayed parenthood and smaller families, is now more bilateral. Parents seek their kids’ opinions about all kinds of once-adult decisions, including where to go for dinner, what kind of car to buy, even what to wear. Online life is also exposing children to buying opportunities and to brands that solicit the start of an evolving consumer relationship.

Mini consumers with greater agency

A late summer 2016 Bloomberg Businessweek article, looking at US discount retailer Target’s involvement of kids in planning 2017 clothing aimed at them, is entitled “Target’s future will be decided by kids”. It compares brands to bemused parents facing more opinionated consumer offspring. “Like contemporary parents who give children so much decision-making power, Target is also learning about the institutional confusion that comes when children are really seen and heard”. A picture of casually-dressed children is captioned, “Mini taste arbiters select favorites at Target’s head office”.

One factor behind the growing influence of children on consumption patterns is the fact that they are assuming adult roles at a younger age. In school and at home, they’re exposed to more adult topics such as poverty, the environment, sexuality and identity. In March 2016, the New Yorker magazine noted that “The prevailing ethos of middle class child rearing” is one in which “offspring are urged to find their enthusiasms and pursue them”. One aspect of this trend is giving children greater agency as both consumers in their own right and as influencers on the spending of their parents.

A common driver of this new-found, younger consumer independence is parent struggles with work / life balance. The need to make the most of their time finds parents open to ready-meals and other time-saving convenience. In this context, parents often pass down some of the decision-making around consumption to their children. This trend is so strong that children in some developed markets have turned into “El Rey de la Casa” (the king of the house), the title of a book from Spanish family marketing specialist Miguel González-Durán, often quoted in Spanish-speaking countries. According to González-Durán, the relation as equals formed between parents and children has turned the latter into so-called “Columbus Children”, who sit in shopping trolleys and stretch their hands towards the new products they “must” buy.

This child input in buying decisions is illustrated by the results of Euromonitor International’s August 2015 Analyst Pulse survey, offering feedback on consumption from its network of global researchers. In terms of child-specific treats, such as toys and games, for instance, 67% of analysts in the US, Canada and Caribbean asserted that children aged 3-11 had considerable input or complete control of the purchasing decision in their countries. In the Asia-Pacific region, this reached 69%, in Europe it was 77%, while in Latin America, this figure rose to 82%.

Targeting children and teenagers via ads continues to raise ethical questions. Ongoing policy moves are attempting to hold brands in check, recognising the vulnerability of younger audiences. Recent studies show a direct link, for instance, between the viewing of ads for sweet cereals and the desire to consume them. Obese and overweight youngsters are an increasing concern in many countries. Recently released figures collected through the National Child Measurement Programme in the UK, for instance, show that the proportion of 10- and 11-year-olds who were obese in 2016 was 19.8%, up from 19.1% the year before. These reverse earlier signs that obesity rates were declining.

Among business strategists, teens and young people are key. These budding consumers set trends and spend money or compel parents to spend it for them. The selection of higher education institute and the advanced study experience itself are both spheres in which the notion of consumers in training is very apparent. Universities and colleges have been discussing a shift in emphasis, from the institution evaluating and grading the student potential and achievements to the students evaluating the institution and reviewing staff on an ongoing basis. Education can be more about what students and their families can expect and less about their responsibilities. In a bid to offer value, investments in state-of-the-art fitness centres, dormitories and landscaping are more common, particularly in the US, with some remarking that learning institutions resemble country clubs with libraries.

Playing at consumption

The success of KidZania—which, according to its website, “allows kids between the ages of four to twelve to do what comes naturally to them: role-playing by mimicking traditionally adult activities”—is significant. As in the real world, children perform “jobs” and are paid in a currency that can be used for shopping or entertainment. KidZania branches feature mini cities complete with “a functioning economy, and recognizable destinations in the form of ‘establishments’ sponsored and branded by leading multi-national and local brands”. There are almost 40 worldwide. Countries include Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Japan, Portugal, Thailand, the UK and Turkey, with plans to open in the US, Thailand and Singapore among others.

Such trends are unsettling to some. One commenter, Itaxpica on website MetaFilter writes, “Kids love pretending to do adult stuff, and a place where they can do that on a grand scale sounds wonderful. But really? We’re talking about building brand loyalty in children? How can you even say those words without feeling like some sort of cartoon caricature of a greedy capitalist?” Another disillusioned consumer remarks, “There’s a fine line between letting kids play at doing grown up stuff and creepy corporate / consumer indoctrination. The Price Chopper supermarket near me has little plastic kid sized shopping carts, and the first time I saw a little kid pushing one around I was all ‘aw!’ Then I saw the ‘customer in training’ sign on the side of the cart”.

The “youngest social network” and other tech outreach

Kids and young people may navigate the digital world including ecommerce with ease, but there’s an ongoing discussion on their lack of communication skills and functional literacy, making them too immature to be full “digital citizens”. However, with even the youngest “digital natives” shifting their entertainment in most countries from TV to online life, tech brands are playing a daring game, reaching out to this tech-hungry audience, with a nod to parental involvement. The “Create Your Pokémon Trainer Club Account” page, for instance, is a clear invitation to a child to become a consumer in their own right. As well as capturing details and offering a “Parents’ Guide to Pokémon”, it paves the way for further brand / consumer communication through an offer to add friends on Pokémon.com, for instance.

Apps used by kids include Musical.ly, reported as being the youngest social network to date; the Shanghai-based company claims over 100 million users. While aimed at the 13–20 age group, some users are known to be younger still, entranced by the chance to create videos in which they can joke and dance to popular songs and film scenes and post the videos to an Instagram-type feed. This reality highlights tension between younger users, tech companies and the norms and laws that regulate them. While Musical.ly emphasises that it “talks” to parents, rather than users, it is a functioning social network which is popular with young people but not marketed to them. In this sense, it is different from YouTube Kids, which is marketed to children and shows children’s programming and ads that are walled off from adult content.

Campaigns are already focusing on the dangers of online influence on children’s and adolescents’ consumption choices. A new World Health Organisation report, for instance, argues that children need to be protected from pervasive junk food adverts in apps, social media and vlogs (video blogs). The report is critical of the way some vloggers get paid by junk food retailers to promote their food and warns that these have more impact on youngsters due to perceived authenticity. This report also raises concerns about the way fast food chains entice kids through their doors by marking restaurants as significant locations in augmented reality games. Countries such as the UK have introduced rules to control advertising in peak children’s’ viewing times. However, the report states that regulation has “failed to keep up with the pace and scope of change in the media”.

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