Kids gaining voice in how home looks

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Parents still write the checks for big-ticket items like home furnishings, but often not without asking their kids first.

Aggressive marketing has made the current generation of tweens and teens the most consumer-savvy in history, with influence over their parents, experts say.

The past three years have seen an uptick in children's sway over their parents' purchases of home furnishings and technology, among other items, according to the Roper Youth Report. Cary Silvers, VP-consumer trends at Roper parent NOP World, cites a combination of media and economic influences for children's increasing interest in home decor. The bedroom makeover show "Trading Spaces: Boys vs. Girls" is a consistently high performer within Discovery Kids' 3-hour block of Saturday morning programming on General Electric Co.'s NBC, while "MTV Cribs" allows a sneak peek into celebrities' palatial homes on that Viacom-owned, youth-focused cable network.

As a result of historically low interest rates, which spurred a home-buying boom over the past decade, "The whole atmosphere opened up for interior design," says Mr. Silvers. "Young people have been influenced through pop culture, and their parents' purse strings have also loosened. So it was a huge one-two punch that helped fuel some of this."

Experts also note that boomer parents approach household decision-making more collaboratively than previous generations. Today's kids are seen and heard.

Marketers would do well to reassess their definition of influence, advises John Geraci, VP-youth research at Harris Interactive. "A lot of marketers concentrate on trying to influence `pester power,' " Mr. Geraci says, "but the reality is that's not the most powerful force in play. The most powerful force is parents' asking their kids for advice."

Retailers such as Ikea are responding to the modern family's cooperative decision-making by marketing to the family as a unit, not as a collection of fragmented demographics. The company aims to reach parents through their children, says Lena Simonsson-Berg, marketing director for IKEA U.S.

"In a way, it's a pedagogical marketing method. We want to tell parents to listen to their children, who have good ideas about how their rooms and the rest of the house should look," says Ms. Simonsson-Berg.

Ikea's most important consumer touchpoint is the store itself, which the retailer says is designed to be "a day out for the whole family," with playroom facilities and family-friendly restaurants. Showrooms feature multipurpose settings, where a single living space functions as a playroom, a dining room, a media room and a work room.

`through children's eyes'

The Ikea catalog, with U.S. distribution of 11.3 million, underscores this inclusive approach. "We work with an idea of `living with children' as the first step," says Ms. Simonsson-Berg. "But we also refer in the catalog to `living with parents.' By twisting the idea, we encourage parents to look at the home through their children's eyes."

When children aren't fixing up the rest of the house, they turn to their bedrooms. According to WonderGroup, a youth/family consultancy and ad agency, $17 billion is spent annually on bedroom furnishings for children aged 8-18, a per capita average of $386. Furniture retailers such as Ethan Allen, Williams-Sonoma's Pottery Barn and Pier 1 Imports now offer children's lines.

When Pier 1 acquired Cargo Furniture in 2001, nearly 40% of the retailer's business was based on children's furniture. "It became apparent that the kids business was the driving force at Cargo," says Peter Fowler, director of merchandising at the company, which was renamed Cargokids. Loomis Agency, Dallas, was recently named first agency of record for Cargokids, and its first advertising was to break this month.

In the past, the teddy bear wallpaper in a toddler's room might remain until that child headed to college. Today, children's tastes fluctuate dramatically-a trend Geppetto Group, WPP Group's youth marketing consultancy and ad agency, calls the "Barney syndrome" in honor of the purple dinosaur that children adore at 2 but abhor at 5.

Seizing on the opportunity, retailers are offering bedroom themes that can be changed every few years. Pottery Barn's PBteen catalog features preppy, bohemian and surfer themes, to name a few, while Cargokids offers accessories that can be purchased as a complete look. "We're only just seeing the tip of the iceberg at the moment," Mr. Fowler says. "Kids' involvement ... is going to explode."