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My little consumer

December 10, 2010

‘Tis the season for marketing.

On Sunday afternoon I took Jack with me to the grocery store. In the parking lot, a woman walking behind us asked if we were there to see Santa. I thought it was an innocent and friendly question, at first – a lot of friendly chatter happens in Wal-Mart parking lots around here – but I turned to see the blue vest and name tag. “You get a free 5×7 if you sit for the picture,” she said, “and the packages are very well-priced.”

They were, as it turns out. But even for $5, what would I do with 10 greeting cards, 20 wallets and more?

Nothing, ideally. Santa at Wal-Mart just feels wrong. But there he was, right out in the middle of one of the store’s widest aisles. Jack spotted him while shopping for the perfect cereal. The guy did have a twinkle. He encouraged Jack to perform the tug-of-beard litmus test and then coaxed him into the picture. Jack coaxed me.

I decided the free 5×7 would do it.

On the other end of the store, I wanted to walk into the garden center to check out the evergreens. But between us and those was a pop-up seasonal section, Toy Land. And, having already sat in Santa’s lap, let my son grab a giant candy cane filled with Hershey’s kisses and a cheap “Santa dress-up hat, pleeease?,” that was a moat I was not about to cross.

*               *               *

I suppose it’s always this season at Chuck E. Cheese, where we went recently for the first time to attend my Godson‘s birthday party. The lucky boy got to wear an inflatable crown decorated with complimentary tokens, and a number of older attendees reached for it admiringly. One Chuck E.’s helpers kneeled, made her eyes big and told the wannabes, in a voice full of eager temptation, “If your mommy and daddy bring you here for your birthday party, then you’ll get a crown full of tokens, too.”

When we pulled into the parking lot, Jack knew Chuck E. Cheese only as a sponsor of some of his favorite PBS programming. (“Look! It’s Chuck E. Cheese! PBS Kids!”) But just inside, he got his cup of gold tokens – his first real taste of currency – and within a few minutes he wanted to live there. We managed to escape its gravitational pull, but not before two days of tantrums and an addition to our list of Places Which Must Not Be Named.

*               *               *

At the grocery, we generally follow the “shop the perimeter” rule, which usually provides a safe distance between us and the cookies, candy and chips that Jack is finally aware of. This time of year, the aisles are punctuated by Christmas cookie endcaps, and the produce section is peppered with candy and cakes. (The tree hung with cans of Campbell’s condensed soups was less of an issue.)

He looks at labels, loves logos. When we drove past a local dairy recently, he asked if the sign said “Milk.” It didn’t – it said “Hiland Dairy” – but he recognized it from our milk carton. He’s already showing signs of brand loyalty, not to mention a preference for products bearing the likeness of icons from Dora to Mickey Mouse, regardless of whether he’s actually ever seen them in animated action. So far, I think he’s just delighted and surprised to recognize images. But what will it look like a couple of years from now? We have a four-year-old friend who has favorite NASCAR drivers and video games and whose wish list is long with particular robots and warriors from popular films.

I do my best to keep Jack from becoming a valuable part of a market segment. But on Saturday mornings, he catches commercial breaks during Busytown. I catch plenty of wistful “I wish I could have one of those” and “That would be so much fun!” It might also be how he grew desperate to visit Toys R Us, which we found ourselves unfortunately parked in front of last week on a trip to the bookstore – the bookstore which now sports a toy aisle, right on the way to the children’s section. Grrreat.

*               *               *

All of this clever child-directed packaging displayed at toddler eye level is a harder trial of temptation than the toy in a McDonald’s Happy Meal, which at least are for sale at a fast food drive-through, and not next to the bananas at the IGA. In desperate moments of weakness, I sometimes buy things for Jack that I shouldn’t, and that’s my problem. I know how to say no, and he knows to expect it often. I don’t need to be protected from my own bad decisions – but I’d love to protect my two-year-old from advertising hypnosis. And, selfishly, myself from in-store tantrums.

This time of year, do your kids get spiral-eyed even in the grocery store? Do you seize the many opportunities for lessons in patience and gratitude or just blindfold ’em?


13 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2010 6:31 pm

    I refuse to shop with my children this time of year. Not going there. We have a rule in our family. We’re happy to visit and look at the toy sections, but we NEVER buy anything. So far, in our mere four years as parents, it has worked. My son hasn’t yet grasped the concept that he should actually take it home and that mommy and daddy could buy it. Maybe I’m deluded in thinking we were ever the cause of this, but I’m hopeful it sticks for a while and through the same years with my youngest.

    I’ve also decided we’ll probably forego the traditional Santa visit this year. My youngest will not be into it and I’m not up for an unecessary battle. If the opportunity should present itself in a reasonable way, rather than a stand in line for hours and keep your kids happy with treats kind of way, then maybe. But I’m not actively planning it.

    • December 11, 2010 9:21 pm

      My son is happy to walk away without anything in hand – but only if he got to spend plenty of quality time browsing the toy shelves! We talk beforehand about how we’re not buying toys or treats. But this year, he knows Christmas is coming, and he knows about presents, but he doesn’t have a great concept of time and the wait.

  2. December 10, 2010 6:46 pm

    That pic at the top is hilarious! No WAY am I going anywhere near a store with my kids in tow. Suicide.

    And Chuck E. Cheese is my personal Hades. I loathe that joint!

  3. December 10, 2010 6:50 pm

    Oh, the treacherous territory of Walmart during December! I’m lucky enough to be able to do most of my family’s shopping while Big Boy is at school – Tiny Baby, 19 months, would probably still be just as interested in the tree with the soup cans on it as in a toy display – so I don’t have to deal with the begging too often. I’ve found, though, that saying no is sometimes harder on me than it is on him. He’ll see a Buzz Lightyear toy at the end of an aisle and ask for it. And I, for some reason, feel guilty about saying no. I do, of course, and he seems mostly fine with it. But I wonder if I somehow project anxiety over my decision. (And now I’m on a tangent and making no sense…)

    • December 11, 2010 9:14 pm

      Oh, that made all kinds of sense to me. I’m so relieved to hear that you sometimes feel bad about saying no! It’s tough when Jack responds to things with such delight and surprise and asks so nicely. (And it’s a little early for a frank discussion about haves and wants, reducing and consumption, right?)

  4. December 11, 2010 5:08 am

    My daughter picked out a Dora toothbrush over all others at the grocery store the other day. Despite having never seen the show (because PBS is all we got and all we want). I was flabbergasted and kept going back and forth between loathing and admiration for Nickelodeon. How do they do that??

    She almost always asks for something at the store, sometimes several somethings, and I almost always say no. This year, after her birthday, we sat down together to work on her thank-you notes (I wrote the note, she signed her name). And I think she finally started to understand the value of quality over quantity … but only after having to sit there and sign her name a gazillion times. And she still gets that glassy-eyed I-want-everything stare in places like Toys R Us and Target. It’s a never-ending lesson, I think, even for adults.

  5. December 11, 2010 4:25 pm

    I take my daughter to the store most of the time when I shop. We visit the toy section, but she is content to look at the toys and move on. It’s the eye level stuff that usually entices her the most. I’ve told her that if we go to the store, I would be happy to buy her a book, but not toys. She really doesn’t play with toys for more than five minutes. When you break it down that way, all toys are expensive in my book.

  6. December 12, 2010 5:35 am

    Either Emily is too little for this or I’m the best parent ever. I think I’ll take the award. : )

    I believe that not having a TV has blessed Emily and Andrew in this area–they aren’t constantly bombarded by commercials about Toys! Games! Dolls! and everything else. That doesn’t mean I can shelter them from those things forever, Emily thinks that going to the store means playing with stuffed animals and stealing candy (that I always find in her hands after leaving the store).

    I’d like to think that my amazingness has kept her from commercialism, but I suppose there could be other explanations. (Hee hee.)

  7. December 13, 2010 3:38 am

    We walked through Target today and every 2 seconds I hear, “Oh Mama, it’s just what I always wanted…blah blah blah.” Initially I kind of made fun of the situation but then I just got irritated. And 10 minutes later I just tuned her out.

    I have a love-hate relationship with shopping at this time of the year!

  8. December 13, 2010 3:39 am

    I meant heard not hear!!

  9. December 14, 2010 3:10 am

    Wow, and wow.

    I’m realizing how little my kids have been driven by material things in recent years. They’ve never had the current gadgets, and they manage. They haven’t asked, either – not in years. Instead, more likely, it was something really important to them – a camera for example, or some computer peripheral for my techie elder son (even when he was much younger).

    Your “shop the perimeter” rule is a good one. But I’m still sitting here thanking my lucky twinkle twinkles that my kids aren’t as into “stuff” as our stuff-oriented culture tends to make us.

    (Love the picture by the way!)

  10. December 14, 2010 6:12 pm

    I am in awe of you and the moms here. Both My Guy and I are products of very materialistic upbringing. My dad relied on bribery to keep him on my good side, and his parents were all about “the stuff”. The more the better. I was shocked at just how many big and expensive presents everyone got during my first Christmas with them, and not just that, they expected them!

    Anyway, my point is that it’s been my general struggle to break ourselves of this cycle as we are happy consumers ourselves, sad to say. When we go to Target, our daughter loves the toy section and picks something that occupies her attention for the duration of our trip there and when we reach the checkout, we tell the cashier to hide it. But since she’s still young (with the attention span of a fly), she would forget that she was coveting something once we get home. So far, this tactic works but once she starts remembering, we may have to come up with another strategy.

  11. December 19, 2010 8:03 pm

    I do bring my kids along shopping, which typically doesn’t extend beyond the grocery or hardware store. I buy them a “bar” (Lara/clif/etc) at the end if they’ve been well behaved and we try to steer clear of the “seasonal” aisle.
    I think they’ve been to Walmart only a few times, which is so over-stimulating it turns me into a bit of a freak too. My kids don’t have TV, so they’ve seen very few commercials and we do Christmas all backwards: when a present arrives in the mail they can open it (rather than the xmas day blowout). It feels more sane and slow and gives them a chance to enjoy each gift and write a thank you note before tackling the neck one.
    There are many ways to parent (esp. around the holidays), it all boils down to what feels comfortable for each of us. Sometimes we visit friends and see their xmas trees loaded with gifts and I know that must be fun for those kids, but without any judgement, it’s just not our way. (my kids can hate me when they’re older 🙂
    Thanks for this interesting topic.

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