PAYSON, Utah -- It's no secret that children can be a great motivator when it comes to parental purchasing decisions. Oftentimes, grownups walk a fine line down the supermarket aisle, balancing between their kids' whimsical desires and proper nutrition.
This tug of war is a great chance for retailers to influence what these shoppers buy, and many have formalized their strategies around in-store kids' clubs. But, beyond simple sales promotion, retailers are learning that the best child-oriented programs include equal parts entertainment, to attract youngsters, and education, to satisfy adults.
Payson Marketplace is one operator who knows just how important the proper mix is. Executives are crediting its newly launched Kid's Club with luring customers back from the competition and boosting sales in its high-margin fresh-foods departments.
Produce, in particular, has benefited from the strong program that -- like other kids' clubs -- is designed to get children to eat healthier and, at the same time, to bring their parents into the store more often. What distinguishes the program at Payson's is the fervor and involvement that has accompanied recent events, and the results that officials are attributing to all that activity.
Total-store sales are up nearly 16% from last year, when sales took a plunge of about 14% after a Food 4 Less store opened down the road.
"[Payson Marketplace] closed the gap and went up a couple of points in a pretty short time," said Clark Wood, corporate produce manager for Associated Food Stores, a Salt Lake City-based wholesale cooperative, of which Payson Marketplace is a member.
"And we're attributing most of that to the Kid's Club," said Connie Jensen, the retailer's Kid's Club coordinator.
Associated Food -- which has 42 retailer members operating under the Marketplace banner and 230 operating under other banners -- created the Kid's Club for its members. It provides the guidelines, the printed materials such as a magazine for club members, a gift box for new members, and speakers and leaders for events.
Payson Marketplace was one of the co-op's first members to jump on board when it launched the club in January. Since then, Jensen has initiated Kid's Club store events at least once a month and has revved up enthusiasm among associates in all parts of the store, Wood said. All the cashiers talk up the program and hand out application-brochures when appropriate. At this point, the store here has signed up 1,400 kids who range in age from one year to 12.
While Associated Food is involved in getting manufacturers to contribute to the program, Jensen has made it a point to get community organizations involved in Kid's Club events. For a summer safety program, she got the local ambulance corps and fire department to participate. And, this fall, she expects to take the eat-healthier show on the road.
"I know that schools don't have a lot of money or help for field trips, so I'm planning to visit the schools and we'll put on some of our programs there," Jensen said.
Wood and Jensen talked to SN following a particularly successful Kid's Club activity here. The two orchestrated the event, which they built around a 5 a Day Tour through the produce department. But it wasn't just a tour. Wood showed videos and slides taken at growers' facilities, for example.
"The kids were amazed at the magnitude [of the operations shown]. They'd never seen produce on such a scale as this. They got to see pictures of huge truckloads of cantaloupes, for instance, and miles of fields of lettuce," Wood explained.
The event drew 600 children and their parents who got to sample 15 fruits and vegetables -- including crenshaw melons and jicama -- that were demoed in the produce department by young teens Jensen had recruited for the day.
"The children enjoyed tasting the products but so did the adults who were with them. The produce manager said he sold a ton of crenshaw melons that day because a lot of adults, who hadn't ever tried them, did taste them that day, and liked them," Jensen said.
Mangoes, seedless watermelon, and then some more familiar items like broccoli and carrot sticks, were also on the demo menu. The day's activities continued from 10 in the morning until 4 that afternoon with no breaks in between.
"As soon as we'd assemble 15 to 20 kids, we took them through the produce department and then over to the video department where Clark gave his presentation. We had a table set up, up front, with coloring books where the children waited until we had enough kids assembled for the next tour group," Jensen said.
The demoing and the traffic through the produce department that day pushed produce sales up more than $2,000 over a typical summer Saturday, Wood said.
Not only that, but the dairy department sold out of milk by noon and the deli sold more chicken fingers than it ever had in one day.
"That gives you some indication of the volume of traffic. People were buying lunch for their kids in the store, and then picking up things to take home," Wood said.
Each walk-through led by Jensen took about 30 minutes and Wood's presentation took 10 to 15. Much effort was made to convey kid-friendliness, Wood and Jensen pointed out. Indeed, some of the posters used in-store had been made by Kid's Club members.
"In May, we had a pre-activity day when we invited them in and gave them crayons and markers and cut-outs to make signs and posters for the 5 a Day Tour day," said Jensen.
Also, all associates in the store wore Kid's Club T-shirts on tour day. And at the end of each walk-through, a drawing was held for a Fruit Hero stuffed toy. Games and charts provided by the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Wilmington, Del., were handed out.
And Jensen, in a strategy to get parents and children back in the store soon, expanded on the use of those materials.
"There's a 5 a Day Chart that kids take home with them after pledging to eat five fruits and vegetables for a week. We told them if they brought the chart back, filled out at the end of the week, we'd take their picture and put it on a tree we created in the produce department," Jensen said.
"These events are fun and they're good for the store, but I also really want our store to be a leader in getting kids to eat well. I'm surprised more supermarkets aren't kid-friendly," said Jensen.
"McDonald's is the best example I can think of. Look what they've done. My kids are the reason I went there. I want to get kids in here," she added.
"I think we can be a community source for them to learn things they may not get the opportunity to learn anywhere else and we can show them a grocery store can be a fun place. [No other grocery store] around here is doing anything like this."
She added that she keeps getting positive feedback from parents.
"More and more often, I have a mom tell me this is her children's favorite store and that she's doing all her shopping here now."