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Enticing the young shoppers of tomorrow with store brands is not the easiest of tasks considering the influential muscle of the national brands. However, some retailers and wholesalers recently told SN that, with the right packaging, they have managed to do just that.The most natural point of entry into the kids' market appears to be through the licensing of well-known characters that children already

Enticing the young shoppers of tomorrow with store brands is not the easiest of tasks considering the influential muscle of the national brands. However, some retailers and wholesalers recently told SN that, with the right packaging, they have managed to do just that.

The most natural point of entry into the kids' market appears to be through the licensing of well-known characters that children already know.

"Kids tend to be even more highly influenced than adults with advertising, character licenses, peer group and celebrity endorsements, and other realities of the national-brand world," said David Biernbaum, consumer products advisor and instructor, David Biernbaum Consulting, St. Louis.

"Retailers are not targeting the children's sector in private label nearly as much as adults, and it's probably for good reasons. Targeting kids for private label is very risky business," he added.

Yet for a supermarket like Piggly Wiggly, not targeting children through private label would be turning a blind eye to the power of the very essence of the grocer's image.

"For us, it's very important because our icon is very kid-friendly -- our Piggly Wiggly character. So we do a lot with children that others either can't do or don't do," said Michael Houser, vice chairman, executive vice president and chief marketing officer, Fresh Brands/Piggly Wiggly, Sheboygan, Wis.

In addition to featuring the Mr. Pig character on its store brands -- the Food Club label, which is procured through the Skokie, Ill.-based cooperative Topco -- the retail chain us involved in various regional sporting activities in which children become a central component.

"We strategically have something at every major sporting event in our marketplace," Houser told SN.

The retailer hosts a "Milwaukee Brewers Bat Boy/Bat Girl Contest" for baseball fans and, for basketball fans, 10 children are selected to go onto the court at every Milwaukee Bucks home game at the start of the game. Also, another contest results in kids playing hoops with Bucks starting guard Ray Allen.

"Our goal is to continue to market to those children. For us it's really important; it helps with a point of differentiation," said Houser, who told SN the retailer plans to involve all of its stores in a new multifaceted program specifically targeted toward children this fall.

The Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Supervalu has discovered a happy medium between licensing existing characters and creating one of its own to tout its private-label items. According to Craig Espelien, corporate director of store brands, the company spent the last five years researching what interests young children and also looking into what food purchases they influence. As a result, more kids-focused products were developed and now the company is looking into the shopping habits of the preteen and teenager sets.

"It's important to get kids as consumers of store brands early so that we can continue to have them as consumers later in life," he told SN.

In the mid-1990s the Riley character was born, a wholesome dog who started his "career" on store-brand cereal boxes and has since made his way onto private-label products across all categories from macaroni and cheese to gelatins to children's cough syrups.

Riley's clean-cut image is important, and intentional, because "the moms are the buyers but the kids are the ones that make the connections so we're actually trying to appeal to both," Espelien said.

"Kids are pretty much the purchase enablers and they're the ones that are saying, 'This is something that I want,"' he added. "We're hoping the parents then make the connection between Riley when they see him on different products when the kids aren't there and say, 'Junior really liked this one and now here's one with the same character that I've already developed trust in."'

The success of what Espelien calls a "sub-brand," a squeeze yogurt product called "Yotastic" that is not part of the standard private-label line but features Riley prominently on the packaging, may lead to the development of a similar cereal line, a first for the company.

Despite Riley's popularity, Supervalu does still license some mainstream characters as well, including the Peanuts gang for a fruit snacks product and The Bear in the Big Blue House for training pants. Yet, Espelien said the stipulations involved in character licensing can be somewhat suffocating.

"The licensed characters limit your flexibility; you have to use what they allow you to use, where the Riley character allows us the freedom to extend across whatever item we think appropriate," he said.

In Biernbaum's opinion, categories that may be ripe for kid's private-label items are "certain foods where shapes, colors and flavors are more important than brands, for example certain types of cookies, puddings, gelatins, peanut butter, snacks, ice cream and some beverages."

Indeed, the Private Label Manufacturers Association, New York, reports that several products designed to appeal to kids were submitted in 2000 and 2001 for consideration for inclusion in the New Product Expo, which is featured at the association's annual trade show in the fall. Among them: Green Ketchup, Peanut Butter with Honey and Peanut Butter with Fudge from The Carriage House Cos., Fredonia, N.Y.; Frozen Smoothies from Pasco Brands, Tampa, Fla.; Pretzel Waffles, Chocolate Pretzel Cookies and Cinnamon Honey Pretzel Cookies from Benzel's Bretzel Bakery, Altoona, Pa.; Novelty Macaroni Entrees from Noodles By Leonardo, Devils Lake, N.D.; and Snack Size Cheddar Singles in Bags and the Big Dipper Snack Kit from Dairy Source, Delevan, Wis.

"There are obviously certain categories that lend themselves more to being marketed toward kids," said Marc Mullins, executive director of AWG brands, Associated Wholesale Grocers, Kansas City, Kan. For AWG, a retailer-owned co-op that services about 800 retail stores, cereal is the category to beat for the attention of children. According to Mullins, the company does a lot of marketing toward kids through the packaging on its cereal boxes. "The front panel is kid-friendly. It's got cartoon characters on it, it's fun, bright happy colors and then on the backs we're putting games, similar to what the national brands are doing," Mullins said.

The wholesaler will often integrate general merchandise items into the cereal aisles as another way to draw children to influence the purchase of items from both departments.

While younger children have already been addressed as the focal point of many private-label promotions, Mullins said the slightly older crowd is becoming even more influential within the grocery industry due to the never-ending communication sources at their fingertips.

"The world has changed from years past. The key is going to be the kids that are using the Internet, the kids that are in that 12 to 16 age group that know what they want. These are the same kids that at 14 and 15 are now carrying cell phones," he said.

Biernbaum agrees that the purchasing power of the young will continue to expand over the years, but cautions that the advertising revenue of the national brands may keep the grocers involved in a game of catch-up for some time to come.

"Keep in mind that billions of dollars are spent on influencing kids to choose national brands. Unlike adults, kids are not as much aware that it's just advertising," he said.

However, AWG's Mullins proffered his opinion on the avenue that may offer a possible solution to this problem.

"The No. 1 key is packaging. For this group of kids, in a lot of cases, money is not an object. They spend a lot of money, and money is not as big of importance as the quality and the uniqueness of the product and the fact that it is the newest, greatest thing on the market."