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Online shopping is on the rise — among children, preteens

By ABHA BHATTARAI
The Washington Post

August 12. 2018 6:50PM
An employee pulls a pallet jack carrying plastic crates containing online orders at the Amazon.com fulfillment center in Robbinsville, N.J., on June 7. (BESS ADLER/BLOOMBERG)



Nine-year-old Isabella Colello shops for just about everything online.

She scrolls through the Amazon app on her phone at least once a day. She gets ideas from YouTube, searches on Google for things she wants and sends the links to her dad: Pink swimsuits, earrings, Adidas sneakers (he said yes); Gucci backpack (no).

“It’s like, I’ll put 18 items in my cart, and we’ll end up getting like one or two,” said Isabella, who lives in Sharpsville, Pa., and spends about $100 a month online. “It’s so much better than going to the mall because there aren’t that many places to shop anymore.”

Children and preteens are more connected to the internet than ever before, which means retailers are looking for new ways to market — and sell — directly to young shoppers on their phones, tablets and laptops. Gone are the days of blanket television ads, marketing experts say. Instead, companies are flocking to Snapchat, YouTube Kids and other mobile apps to reach children with personalized messages.

Nearly half of 10- to 12-year-olds have their own smartphones, according to Nielsen. By the time they’re teenagers, 95 percent of Americans have access to a smartphone.

“Kids are shopping on their phones and influencing much more of their families’ spending,” said Katherine Cullen, director of retail and consumer insights for the National Retail Federation. “As a result, retailers are paying a lot more attention to pint-sized customers.”

Back-to-school season is peak time for direct-to-kids marketing. Brands such as Five Star, which makes binders and folders, and Red Bull, the energy drink maker, have released new back-to-school “filters” on Snapchat, while clothing chain Justice is advertising in-store fashion shows on its app. Families are expected to spend an average of $685 per household on clothing, shoes and other items for school-age children in the coming weeks, according to the National Retail Federation.

But advocacy groups say marketing to children directly on their smartphones — where companies can collect data on users and tailor ads to specific consumers — also raises a number of concerns, not just about privacy but also about the kind of influence those ads may have on young children.

“As adults, we might think it’s a little weird or creepy if we’re getting targeted ads that follow us from site to site,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “Kids, though, are especially vulnerable because they have no understanding of what those ads are or why they’re seeing them.”

Nearly 1.5 million children age 11 and under have active Snapchat accounts, according to data from eMarketer, which expects continued double-digit growth in coming years. (Snapchat requires that users be at least 13.)

The social media platform — which is particularly popular among teenagers and 20-somethings — has emerged as a holy grail for retailers in search of young consumers. That is especially true, the company says, during back-to-school seasons, where last year users spent an extra 130 million hours using the platform to chat with friends and connect with popular brands like Vans, Hollister and Michael Kors.

“Kids have their own screens and are choosing exactly what they want to watch at younger ages,” said Nick Cicero, chief executive of Delmondo, a New York firm that helps brands such as Red Bull and MTV market themselves on Snapchat and other social media platforms.”

Justice, the clothing brand, is popular among the under-13 crowd and pitches its mobile app to parents as “a safe place where your girl can create, engage and have fun with awesome girls just like herself.” Once in the app, shoppers can save items to a wish list that they’re encouraged to email to their parents.

Amazon.com, meanwhile, allows children as young as 13 to create their own logins for online purchases. (Parents can either set spending limits or ask to approve all purchases.) The company declined to say how many teenagers had signed up for teen accounts since they were introduced late last year but said “customer response has been strong.” (Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, also owns The Washington Post.)

It’s been over a year, Kristin Harris says, since her kids watched TV.

Instead, her 6- and 10-year-old daughters spend hours a week watching videos on YouTube, where companies such as Nike and Nintendo routinely partner with “influencers” to get their toys, clothing and accessories featured in videos.

“The videos that really get their attention are the ones where kids are playing with toys like Breyer Horses or Hatchimals — those really get them interested,” said Harris. “As an adult, you’re like, ‘Why are you watching this?’ But the next thing you know, they’re asking for Hatchimals because they saw them in a video.”


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