Tween Picks: Traxtars are fun and they're just for kids. Parents? Butt out.

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There's a kid in my neighborhood with sneakers that flash purple lights. Even in the dark I know when he's passing, because that's when I see the almost street-level purple sparks streaking by. He seems to think his high-tech shoes are pretty neat, and I can't help but agree. Now, though, Reebok has one-upped him.

Just in time for the holiday shopping season, Reebok is introducing Traxtar, a sneaker for the 6-to-11-year-old set that features a microprocessor unit in the shoe's tongue so kids can time and measure their running and jumping skills. Forget about flashes of purple light - on the Traxtar, when certain athletic targets are met, rows of multicolored lights flash and the song "Pomp and Circumstance" plays. Kids can compete against themselves or each other for the gold, silver, or bronze medal, all displayed on the shoe's tongue.

Sounds cool, certainly, but will kids bite?

The rationale behind the Traxtar is simple and quite convincing. In its creation, Reebok considered two basic questions. First, what are kids interested in? According to Reebok's research - not to mention common sense - kids' favorite activities are playing with other kids, being outside, and sports. Second, what issues are important to kids psychologically? According to Reebok, and backed up by marketers, 6-to-11-year-olds tend to be focused on mastering tasks, testing themselves, and charting their progress. With the Traxtar, Reebok has created a shoe that caters to all these principles.

"It's about fun and participation and things they can do for themselves," says Michael Phelan, director of marketing for Reebok's kids strategic business unit. Phelan also points out that since no preparatory organization or adult involvement is required, the Traxtar basically serves as entertainment that's always available. And if there's one thing kids have liked through the ages, it's entertainment.

Reebok's prelaunch testing of the Traxtar showed it appealed most to 8- and 9-year-olds, although kids as young as 6 and as old as 11 were also enthusiastic. According to tests in city camps and suburban schools conducted earlier this year by Reebok, that enthusiasm was shared by kids across the country.

Also - and perhaps most interesting - Phelan says he expects sales of Traxtar to skew only about 60 percent toward boys. Indeed, Reebok's initial tests show the shoe appealing almost equally to both genders. (While the only difference between boys' and girls' Traxtars currently is color - navy combinations for boys and purples for girls - future plans include developing specific models for each group.)

Liking the shoe when it's handed to you is one thing, however, and going out and buying it is another. Will kids like the Traxtar enough? Enough to convince Mom and Dad to fork over the $65 for which the sneaks are retailing?

While I may have been ready to die and go to heaven for a pair of white Nike's with a powder-blue swish when I was 9, today's kids are a bit more sophisticated. And they have become almost as picky about their possessions as their older brothers and sisters, says Julie Halpin, chief executive of the Geppetto Group, which specializes in marketing to children and teens. Exposed to 24-hour media, dropped into nursery school at earlier ages, and involved in adult and family life in new ways, the kids of Gen Y have absorbed the fast pace and image-consciousness of the culture at large.

In other words, flashes of purple at the heel probably won't thrill most 6-to-11-year-olds for long. They genuinely care about what's on their feet and it's got to be new. Kids' longing for novelty is roaring strong, and it operates at a faster turnover rate than ever before. A shoe with the bells and whistles of a Traxtar may be exactly what is required to excite today's kids the way my Nikes delighted me.

As for the parents, yes their approval is likely to be required and they will probably be paying. According to the 1999 Roper Youth Report, only 9 percent of 8-to-12-year-olds said the next thing they planned to buy with their own money is shoes, and 48 percent of kids said they usually need to consult their parents on sneaker selection. But the marketers I spoke with doubted this would be a problem. For one, arguing with your kids about their product choices is about as passe as John Travolta before his Pulp Fiction come-back. Kids today are co-decision makers, not little automatons to be bullied about. Besides, parents may think Traxtars are pretty cool themselves. Over-involved boomers may even see them as a good thing for their kids, encouraging exercise, competition, practice - all of those solid American values.

And anyone who's ever taken a child through the check-out line at the supermarket knows that once a kid sees something that pleases, it's hard to convince him he doesn't actually need it. If Reebok has anything to say about it, every kid in the country will be hollering for a pair of Traxtars. The company is going after the little guys through every available channel.

Its advertising and marketing campaign launched in November with fast-paced, futuristic TV teasers, and will kick into full gear this month. The campaign is scheduled to continue through the spring of 2000 with CD-ROM giveaways, "grass-roots" events, and - at its core - an Internet site. The site will feature information about the Traxtar in particular and Reebok in general, as well as games and puzzles. The CD-ROMs - packaged with each pair of shoes - will provide more games and tips about using the Traxtar, as well as guide kids to the Internet site. In 1998, about 8.6 million kids aged 2 to 12 were online. By 2002, that number is expected to reach 21.8 million, an increase of 153 percent, according to Jupiter Communications.

For those kids who aren't yet wired, Reebok hopes to head them off at the pass with summer fairs featuring things like rock-climbing walls, music, and celebrities - events that will help bind both the child and the parent to the products, says Reebok kids-strategist Phelan. Although the events have not all been planned yet, he says an appearance by the Harlem Globetrotters is a definite. And who, of any generation, can resist them?

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