Monday, February 9, 2009

The key to parents' pocketbooks? Free - and family friendly

Like many Americans, I find myself spending a little more time each month reviewing the monthly expenses now that we're in the midst of these exciting economic times. What I discovered though surprised me. I've given up on many of my favorite discount chains, warehouse clubs and specialty retailers in favor of something else entirely: the lure of a kid-friendly shopping environment, often with built-in free childcare.

My children are now almost 2 and 6 - and although I love them dearly; I absolutely despise shopping with them. The whining, the frequent bathroom trips, the standing up in the shopping cart... it's enough to drive a mother away from her favorite stores. Take grocery shopping, for instance. I used to love the convenience, prices and club card discounts at our neighborhood Safeway. The specialty items and inexpensive wines I found at Trader Joe's. Shopping in bulk at Costco. Supporting local farmers and selecting from cleverly selected kid-approved items at PCC. No more. Now I shop almost exclusively at QFC or drive across town to Fred Meyer. Why? Because they offer free childcare. I drop my children off at the "Quality Fun Center" or Fred Meyer's Kids Club and my kids have fun drawing pictures, playing dress-up or racing toy cars while I shop. In peace. Which gives me time to think: wouldn't Trader Joe's, Safeway, Costco or PCC like to have a piece of my family's $800 monthly grocery budget back in their pockets? What's holding them back? And, by the way, does QFC or Fred Meyer have any idea how much more money is coming to them because of their childcare offerings? I don't think so - they don't even promote the service online or offer any information about it other than what you can find out in store.

How about some of my other, formerly favorite retailers: Target? You stock so many great kids products and I love your merchandise, but my kids act so poorly in your store, it's just not worth it. There's no place for my kids to go except go crazy. Nordstrom? Used to love you too, especially when I could breastfeed my children in your luxurious women's lounge areas and park my stroller in an oversized dressing room. No more. The fish tank in the kids department just doesn't cut it.

At this stage (and by the way, retailers, it's a long stage... I don't anticipate that my kids are going to improve their behavior or suddenly gain loads of patience for many years to come) I find myself exclusively shopping at stores or dining at restaurants that are family friendly. Take Barnes & Noble. Never used to shop there before; was more of an or independent book store kind of girl. But now I heart Barnes & Noble and even bought into their membership program because I anticipate shopping there much more in the future. The story times, kids play area and free gift wrapping completely sucked me in. Outside of the holidays, I don't gift-wrap anything. Period. So that means that if a retailer does not offer this service to me for free, I won't shop there. It's just not worth it. I recently joined a gym. Why? Free childcare. Well - it's not free exactly ($3/hour) but free enough for me. Ditto for restaurants. High chairs, kids menus and crayons are so yesterday. Now when our family goes out to eat, we venture to places like the Montlake Alehouse, complete with padded kids mosh pit and dozens of toys, or Vios, an upscale Greek restaurant with a separate kids play area.

Now I do realize that this kind of thinking may not be especially financially savvy on my part. An article in yesterday's Seattle Times outlined 7 Bad Money Habits (and how to cure them). What's the number 1 bad money habit on the list: The lure of "free." Even Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University and author of "Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions" is quoted in the article as having purchased the wrong car (car!) because Audi offered free oil changes for three years (about a $200 value.)

All I'm saying is that many retailers, restaurants, grocery chains, fitness centers, nail salons and the like could all benefit immensely from the lure of "free." Need help developing a strategy? Hey, feel "free" to contact me anytime.

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