When it comes to grocery shopping, children have a lot of clout

By Adi Menayang

- Last updated on GMT

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Related tags Packaged facts Children Nutrition

What differences in shopping habits do childless households have compared to ones with children? A lot, a new study by Packaged Facts reveals. We chat with founders of two smaller brands who market directly to children and get their take.

“The parents might bring home the bacon, but it’s probably the kids who pick the brand,”​ Packaged Facts said, adding that “children have a disproportionate sway over household grocery purchases and decisions.”

Assessing trends over a ten-year period (2006-2015), Packaged Facts’ Kids Food 8th​ Edition​ report outlines how children influence the grocery shopping trip. According to its data, 26% of parents—more than a quarter—learn about a new product as a request from their child.

The final drive to actually purchase a product is nutritional content, which was reported by 46% of respondents, followed by the “fun factor,” which is kids’ enjoyment of food (38%) and how “kid-friendly” the flavor is (32%). Value comes in last with 31% of parents responding.

Shapes, colors, flavors, and fun characters to attract kids

According to the report, mothers skew highest in saying that flavors and a self-preparation component (think Lunchables) are enjoyable to kids, while fathers think fun shapes and character themes drive the most enjoyment.

Observing from a brand point of view, the co-founder of children’s snack brand Bitsy’s Brainfoods​ Maggie Patton concurs. “Kids are attracted to color and fun. They like to see stories and characters that relate to the entertainment world – either characters they already know and love outside of the food aisle, or ones that have a similarity to those types of characters,”​ she told FoodNavigator-USA

The packaging of Bitsy's Brainfood come with games, stories, and fun-looking characters.

Fun shapes and colors aside, packaged foods aimed at children today are also sporting free-from claims that their counterparts in other sections of the grocery store are displaying. As childhood obesity rates remain stubbornly high​ and big food companies get bad press for marketing sugar-laden products to children​, some brands are also pushed to make changes and label their products to meet consumers’ demand for health.

“For the majority of parents, foods chosen for children reflect their personal values about what is healthful,” ​the report said. “Additionally, 55% of parents say that it is important for children to follow their example when it comes to eating healthfully.” ​The implication here, the report added, is that 'health' is a subjective term.

Too sweet or not too sweet?

“With the emergence of healthier items on shelves, the new trend is to replace sugar with ‘natural sweeteners.’”  The problem with that is these 'natural sweeteners' are still sweet!”​ Heather McDowell, founder of unsweetened carbonated water brand Tickle Water​, told FoodNavigator-USA.

“And then if you are giving a child something sweet, even with natural zero calorie sweeteners, you are still training the child’s palate to crave sweetness.  As a result of this, one will only have a harder time curbing that desire for sweetness as the child ages.”

McDowell’s brand, like Patton’s Bitsy’s Brainfood, markets directly to children. Both brands package their products in bright colors, adding whimsical characters and stories to their can or box. “I think a lot of times, when you’re talking about brands founded by parents particularly, there’s a lot of language that’s like mom-to-mom or parent-to-parent,”​ Bitsy’s Brainfood co-founder Alex Voris said, adding that their move to appeal to children directly was intentional. 

In the US, unsweetened sparkling water is often marketed to adults. Tickle Water founder Heather McDowell wanted to change that.

Both brands also shy away from ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup.

“In general, the food industry historically has not always been ethical in using the things that work to draw kids in, but drawing them to junk food,”​ Patton opined.

“It’s frustrating to me as a mother. My kids are aware of what’s healthy – my three-year-old eats kale and quinoa. But when we go to the grocery store and have to walk past the colorful products that have excess and unnecessary sugars, it threatens to undo all that hard work you do as a parent.”

A chance for change in the children’s section

Big companies are listening to consumer demand and taking out unpopular ingredients from some of their products or buying small companies that have already been doing that, such as General Mills’ acquisition of Annies​ and EPIC​. At the same time, smaller companies are popping up, but they’re faced with challenges to grab eyes.

“As a small company with much smaller budgets, it is hard to be noticed without spending the big money on marketing and advertising,” ​McDowell said. “We have to grow organically by social media, word of mouth and guerrilla marketing.”

Another strategy is to pair the kid-friendly flavors and colorful packaging with nutritional education on the box.

“One trend we have seen [is] the idea of making food sound like junk even though it’s actually good for kids,”​ Patton said. “A hallmark of this style is ‘hiding’ healthy ingredients like veggies in food. As a brand, Bitsy’s Brainfood practices the exact opposite – we proclaim our healthy ingredients loud and proud, because that’s how kids learn that healthy can be fun and delicious.”

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