We’re always looking for ways to make smarter choices about our spending habits and to pass those lessons along to our children. It turns out that bringing our kids along with us on the weekly grocery run might not accomplish either of those goals.
Children between the ages of eight and fourteen spend (or influence the spending of) $1.2 trillion dollars worth of stuff every year worldwide. My two daughters probably account for close to half that figure, so I was interested in a recent paper published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services titled “Children’s inﬂuences on in-store purchases” by Claus Ebster, Udo Wagner, and Deniese Neumueller of the Department of Marketing at the University of Vienna. According to these researchers, parents who bring their kids along on shopping excursions vastly underestimate how much influence their kids have over what they buy.
The researchers secretly observed parents and their children at a supermarket and noted when the parents gave in to their kids’ requests to buy products. After the families left the store, the researchers approached the parents and asked how many products were purchased at their childrens’ request. On average, the parents fessed up to only half of the observed number of actual child-influenced purchases.
Young children are “not able to take other people’s perspectives — such as their parents’ — into account,” the report states. “Decisions are usually made on the basis of very limited information, e.g. the size or color of an object. Children in this stage usually do not plan ahead but seek instant gratiﬁcation.” The paper explains that children employ a number of tactics, including “whining, anger, and demands” to convince parents to buy cereal, junk food, candy, and toys. In extreme circumstances kids use their most powerful weapon — asking politely — as a highly effective way to get their parents to buy things they otherwise would leave on the shelves.
Why didn’t the parents tell the researchers the truth? It could be, say the researchers, that they were embarrassed to admit how easily they gave into their kids’ demands. It could also be a “form of self-deception.”
Whatever the reasons, the lesson to be learned is that bringing your kids with you while you shop is potentially hazardous to your bank account. It’s probably best to leave them at home when you get the groceries, but if you must bring them along, here are a few suggestions:
- Make a shopping list and stick with it. This is good advice even if you don’t bring your kids with you because research has shown that most supermarket store purchases are spontaneous reactions (i.e., the six-year-old in us takes over when we see those pricey goodies dangling from the shelves at the checkout line).
- Keep your kids in the shopping cart. The researchers observed that confining your children to the cart is an effective way to prevent them from grabbing things and begging you to buy them.
- Give your child something to play with when you shop. A book or a toy will give them something to focus on other than the Double Oreos in the cookie aisle. When I go shopping with my six-year-old daughter, I give her my iPhone loaded with games (her favorite is Rolando) and episodes of Sponge Bob Squarepants, and I don’t hear a peep out of her.
- Ask your supermarket to offer a parent-friendly checkout line. When my family went to Australia, we shopped in a supermarket that had special checkout lines that were free of gum and candy. It’s a smart move on the store’s part. Though it might lose some revenue this way, the store will more than make up for it by winning customers’ loyalty.