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Once upon a time, merchandising to youngsters was a simple affair for supermarket bakeries, handled nicely with some cookie freebies and perhaps kid-level showcase displays.But the practice keeps rising in sophistication, these days challenging retailers to keep up with a business that, like kids, not only can grow fast, but also change fast.The upgrading of the traditional cookie club is a prime

Once upon a time, merchandising to youngsters was a simple affair for supermarket bakeries, handled nicely with some cookie freebies and perhaps kid-level showcase displays.

But the practice keeps rising in sophistication, these days challenging retailers to keep up with a business that, like kids, not only can grow fast, but also change fast.

The upgrading of the traditional cookie club is a prime example of this trend. Probably the best-known -- and most-used -- kiddie promotional idea, the club has been morphing like a Japanese science-fiction toy into a selling machine that fits into frequent-shopper strategies.

And today's versions of kids' club are being made over into streamlined vehicles for a variety of baked goods, not just cookies.

In addition to increasing the patter of little feet at bakery counters, bakery product clubs have intensified the levels of cross merchandising in children's goods. Accelerating opportunities for product licensing are also helping to lift the in-store bakery's profile all over the store, said retailers.

"We have a frequent-shopper program called Club DLM," Scott Fox, bakery director at Dorothy Lane Market, a progressive two-unit upscale retailer in Dayton, Ohio, told SN. "We go further than just the cookie club, to our kids' club. When children sign up for their own membership I.D. card, just like the grownups have, we ask for the parents' Club DLM number."

Operating in the mold of many other clubs, membership to Club DLM grants kids a cookie treat every time they show up with a parent at the bakery counter. The department even accommodates small kids with a couple of steps so they can more easily reach the top of the counter.

But beyond such daily bakery-specific benefits, each of Dorothy Lane's army of 2,000 pint-sized card-carrying members stands to receive a free 5-inch birthday cake during his or her birth month.

In effect a taste-sampling technique, the mini-cake perk is catching on big nationally. Many bakery managers said they now regularly give away 6-inch cakes on a child's first birthday to encourage such purchases in later years.

"It's the one children's area we really target, aside from our Cub store's kids' card club," said Rich Kellerman, who is bakery director for Kowalski's Market in St. Paul, Minn., which operates three Kowalski's banner stores and a single Cub franchise.

Some chains have set up birthday clubs to pursue the lucrative juvenile decorated cake business. At Hy-Vee Food Stores, West Des Moines, Iowa, bakery shop managers -- who earn bonuses based on monthly departmental profits -- follow up on birth announcements by either contacting families directly or trying through flyers and direct-mail to solicit sign-ups of new parents.

"When a lot of people order a quarter-sheet or a big 8-inch birthday cake, they also tend to order a smaller individual cake for the child," observed Ruth Mitchell, Hy-Vee spokeswoman.

It's up to each Hy-Vee bakery manager to decide whether he wants to offer the smaller cake free, or give away go-with goodies from other store departments, like a half-gallon of ice cream, Mitchell said.

Although birthdays are probably the biggest single event in children's bakery merchandising, bakery directors such as Patrick Quinn at Homeland Stores, Oklahoma City, and Barb Harner at Steele's Markets, Fort Collins, Colo., say they are in hot pursuit of an expanding number of school-related occasions and holidays, even creatively concocted events like Christmas in July.

Homeland's Quinn sells 24-count and 36-count packages of cupcakes for class parties, while Steele's Harner wholesales discounted product to "a lot of 'kid' people" at school and church parties.

With party needs like balloons and napkins usually scattered throughout the store, licensed and departmental party programs for kids are poised to make some headway, according to bakery marketers.

In the holiday column, Kwanza in December looks like a promising newcomer. Suppliers have started to add items to their lines for this celebration of African-American pride.

In-store events are wildly popular. Said Steele's Harner: "We'll have 350 to 400 kids turn out all at one time in our four stores to decorate Mother's Day and Father's Day cakes out on the sales floor, or decorate Christmas cookies so they can wrap them as a gift. We've had Easter egg hunts at 6 a.m. for kids."

And that doesn't count the four to eight times each month when Steele's bakery production facility turns into sort of a whistle stop during school tours of the total store.

The payoff, Harner said, shows up in yearly gains. "In 1996, we sold about 30,000 of our hand-iced pumpkin cookies during September and October. In 1997, our numbers on the Halloween item grew to 35,000. It's the kind of item we feel is a signature or special item that sets us apart from other bakeries."

Retailers said they seek everybody's business during holiday opportunities -- both adults and youths -- but own up that the one time they clearly go all out to deliberately woo kids is back-to-school season.

That's when shoppers notice an upsurge of ads for bakery, lunch and snack-type items, and when school lunch packs spiced with specialty cookies and cupcakes debut in take-out meal sections of stores.

"We tie in with grocery and nonfood displays using sweet items like brownies that can be packed into lunches," said Ed DeYoung, bakery director for D&W Food Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich. At the same time though, De Young observed that "most kids nowadays are eating lunch at school through school lunch programs and not brown-bagging it anymore, so it's not as big a deal."

Also, in certain areas, there may be fewer tykes around overall, a point brought up by John Smolders, who runs eight Taste of Holland in-store bakeries for West Linn Thriftway, West Linn, Ore., and has been there for 11 years.

"The kids are growing up. We're getting a clientele that's a little older. I noticed our orders for kids' cookies were down last Christmas and Halloween party times."

Still, Smolders indicated that he's compensated nicely. "We sell a lot of doughnuts to high school kids. As a matter of fact, we better have them. Whenever they have a week off, some will ask for as much as $100 worth of donuts, just buy up everything we have. We also make a product called a pizza pretzel which is a French bread dough that I roll like a pretzel, top with cheese and pizza sauce and whatever, bake off, and sell in the deli rather than the bakery because it's in a hot tray. You can consider that catering to the kids' market, also."

The desire to cater to kids' whims regarding favorite characters, TV shows and the like is behind the rise of what one retailer calls the "Mickey [Mouse] business." As more licenses are awarded to the bakery area, the number of licensed designs aimed at juveniles has ballooned.

According to suppliers, the newer properties being snapped up by chains likes Kroger Co., Publix Super Markets and Wal-Mart Stores are notably sports leagues and offerings from smaller licensors, properties like Barbie or Rugrats or the Sesame Street group.

Licensors also are leaving fewer kinds of bakery novelty items untouched. Among the latest licensed sellers mentioned by retailers are toppers like edible cupcake picks, character rings stuck into cakes that turn into toys afterward, and character candles on birthday cakes.

Statistics developed for manufacturers by industry trackers show decorated cake sales jumping 14% annually, to a present total of about $1.5 billion. A huge reason for that, explained one supplier, is the trend toward licensed characters on decorated cakes, which enables bakeries to charge premium prices.

Indeed, cakes decorated using licensed kits have cut dramatically into standard decorated cake sales, confirmed Smolders of West Linn Thriftway.

"The national advertising by Disney can do a better job than anything you could ever do," Smolders, who is the Pacific Northwest board director for Retailer's Bakery Association, said in an interview with SN.

"All we get when people come in for a kid's birthday is, 'Do you have Sleeping Beauty, My Little Pony, 101 Dalmatians?' Definitely, it is a shift in business in the cake area, although once in a while I am asked to put [the license] on my monster cookies, which aren't nearly as big a seller."