KROGER OFFERING IN-HOUSE BABYSITTING

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Kroger Co.'s division here is adding to its customer-service foundation with an in-store baby-sitting service.The secured play area, called Pepe's Playhouse, is being offered to parents who want more time to shop, said Harry Buskirk, deli-bakery merchandiser for Columbus-area Kroger stores."Our average customer is 20 to 45 years old with two or more children. We know their time

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Kroger Co.'s division here is adding to its customer-service foundation with an in-store baby-sitting service.

The secured play area, called Pepe's Playhouse, is being offered to parents who want more time to shop, said Harry Buskirk, deli-bakery merchandiser for Columbus-area Kroger stores.

"Our average customer is 20 to 45 years old with two or more children. We know their time is valuable," Buskirk said at this year's National Restaurant Association show in Chicago.

Parents who use the Playhouse can shop without worrying where their children are or if they're knocking over displays, said an observer. Children ages 3 to 9 are accepted.

Kroger's Columbus division has constructed Pepe's Playhouse centers in six stores, and eventually plans to offer it in a total of 13. Executives from other Kroger marketing areas have visited the center, though plans to expand it into additional divisions couldn't be confirmed.

Each play area is supervised by about two people who have been certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and the Heimlich Maneuver. A store-level associate said there is no training in child care, but that representatives from the local YMCA offer a four-hour class in managing children.

"We try to get everybody who works here to go through the four-hour class," she said. "Kroger also runs a police check on everybody who works in the Playhouse."

When a child is dropped off at the child-care area, parents sign a consent form and provide general information on the child, including name, birth date, special needs and other emergency information.

Parents also are given a number-coded bracelet that matches one given to their child. Only the parent wearing the bracelet can pick up the child.

"If the mother drops him off, and she's in [the checkout] line, and the dad comes to get him, we won't let the dad have him. The mother has to come back with the arm band on," explained the in-store employee.

The maximum time a child can spend in the area is an hour. If more time elapses, the parent is paged.

"We've never really had a problem," said the observer. "The average stay is around 45 minutes. If it's an hour, it's because the kid is not ready to leave."

Children are provided with a variety of toys and games with which to play. When SN visited a store in the Columbus area, youngsters were enjoying Sega, an electronic game system, and computers. Other children were playing with old-fashioned Barbie dolls and board games. The store-level employee said coloring and crafts also are offered.