American Families Increasingly Let Kids Make Buying Decisions

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Breakfast is the most important meal of the day — so why are you letting your kid pick what you’ll eat? A new study from the NPD Group shows that parents defer to their children about a third of the time when it comes to deciding what to eat for breakfast, and about a quarter of the time for lunch. (The family members who are old enough to bring home the bacon are still the ones calling the shots on dinner, with only 3% of kids dictating that menu.) The mealtime surrender is just one more way parents are increasingly letting their children dictate what they buy, and it’s got marketers scrambling. 

NPD advises companies, “By understanding who controls the meal… you can more effectively target your audience.”

According to a study conducted last year by Viacom’s Nickelodeon, kids pick what to eat 85% of the time at fast-food visits. (Maybe that’s why those apple slices haven’t been selling like, well, hotcakes infused with syrup and wrapped around eggs, cheese, and a sausage patty.)

Food manufacturers seem to have gotten the message: Market research firm Packaged Facts says in a new report that it expects breakfast versions of “popular indulgent” dessert items like cookies and pies in flavors like chocolate to become more popular. Breakfast cookies are obviously a kid-friendly concept, but these new versions also aim to please parents with better nutritional content.

It’s not just food choices that kids are dictating — or at least voting on. “Decision-making within families today is almost entirely collaborative – and as kids become more influential, they’re impacting purchasing decisions,” Christian Kurz, vice president of research at Viacom International Media Networks wrote on Viacom’s blog last year after Nickelodeon conducted its study. Kids also help pick clothes, shoes, and where their families go on vacation.

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The Nickelodeon study found that family decision-making in general is more inclusive these days; more than half of parents seek their kids’ input, and just under half say their family discusses and decides major decisions together.

This effect is more pronounced when dollars are at stake — 71% of parents say they solicit opinions from their kids regarding purchases. Nearly all let the kids weigh in when what’s being bought is mainly for the kids themselves, but more than two-thirds of parents take their kids’ views into consideration when making family purchases.

Kids even get a say when the purchase is something they won’t directly use. Nearly three out of five parents consult with their kids before they buy a car — an increase of almost 20 percentage points in just three years. “We discovered some adults let their kids pick out the luxury cars that they buy,” Lexus general manager Mark Templin told Advertising Age.

The Nickelodeon study found a similar trend: More than a quarter of parents ask their kids for advice or input before buying stuff for themselves.

The temptation here might be to spout off about indulgent American parents, but it turns out that giving deference to the smallest members of the household is a global phenomenon, studies from IsraelIndia and the Philippines show.

So we’re eating cookies for breakfast and letting kids who can’t even see over the steering wheel pick out our new SUV — and marketers are encouraging this trend because there’s big money at stake. Last year, ad agency Digitas reported that kids have $1.2 trillion in buying power a year.

Digitas says families are acting more like democracies in general. “We’re treating our kids more like adults than ever before,” the company said in a report about the findings. When its researchers interviewed a panel of 10-to-13-year-olds, they found that kids today are tech-savvy and demanding: All of the kids either had a cell phone or knew when they’d be getting their own. (Nickelodeon found that about half of kids get a say on what cell phone they get.)

“What we’re seeing over time is that they’re showing preference for adult things,” Digitas says. “We believe that we’ll see fewer multi-brands, and more mega- brands.” It starts young: Nielsen found that half of 6- to 12-year olds wanted a full-sized iPad for the holidays last year — and over a third wanted an iPad Mini.

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The popularity of iPads among kids still young enough to play with crayons is illustrative of a broader trend, and explains why companies are so eager to get in kids’ good graces. A smaller concentration of brands makes the stakes even higher. “Given the power of kids’ influence over purchasing decisions, marketers would be remiss to exclude kids from their messaging and branding,” Kurz says. Companies love when parents hand over the purchasing reins to their kids because that’s money in the bank today and a down payment on the next generation of customers.