How the collectables craze is turning children into brand-savvy shoppers
A supermarket collectables craze has stormed the country, making for heavier shopping baskets, lighter wallets and more frenetic children. But it has also raised questions about the ethics behind the addictive little marketing campaigns. Jessy Edwards reports.
Cameron Sigmund, 5, is playing checkout.
He packs a teeny-tiny Pump sipper-bottle, mini-Energizer battery pack and finger-width Head & Shoulders dandruff shampoo into a shopping trolley, before swiping his customer's Fly Buys card and ringing it through his New World plastic register.
As mum brandishes a plastic-wrapped Domino Star from Countdown, a fight breaks out between the pint-sized cashier and his pig-tailed 1-year-old sister Ashley over who's going to open it.
Screams ensue. The packet is opened. Disappointed faces all round: the Sigmunds already have Nemo.
The family, from the northern Wellington suburb of Paparangi, have religiously collected the little giveaways from New World and Countdown since the stores started the promotions in 2013.
But mum Deanna Sigmund says – despite all the fun they've had so far – she isn't going to participate in any more supermarket collectable campaigns.
She joins a band of parents questioning whether the family-friendly appeal of free collectable toys might conceal a few unethical marketing techniques. Whether children are being exposed to brands too early, and if those brands are sending the right message.
Free collectable toys are nothing new: from little Hamburglars in our McDonald's Happy Meals, to Christian Cullen All Blacks cards in our 1990s Weet-Bix boxes.
But since New World, owned by Foodstuffs, launched its extraordinary Little Shop range of mini-branded supermarket products in September 2013 – and Countdown responded with its wildly successful collector cards and dominos – collectables have had a tsunami-like comeback, spawning school swap-meets and inflated Trade Me auctions.
Sigmund is the first to admit collecting the New World Little Shop and Little Kitchen products and Countdown Animal Cards and Domino Stars is great fun. She's got two full sets of each, one for each child.
But she's already swapped supermarkets four times just to follow the promotions, and after the Domino Stars set is complete, she's done, she says.
"It's all very well doing this stuff, but there's a lot of families who actually can't afford it ... I personally think that [the supermarkets are] getting quite greedy.
"I think it puts a lot of pressure on parents also, with kids saying, 'Why can't I have that, Mummy?' "
The promotion of collectable toys is all part of "pester-power" marketing, GoodSense marketing managing director Kath Dewar says.
If you can get kids excited about your product, they will use their powers of persuasion to pressure their parents to buy it.
In the case of the Little Shop and Kitchen promotion, brands pay to have their products featured in the hopes it will drive up their sales, she says.
But children shouldn't have to interact with advertising at such a young age. "The fun of playing with blueberries is not enhanced by it being Pams blueberries.
"The only enhancement is for the supermarkets' bottom line, and for Pams sales, but not for the parents who are pestered and the children in the future – because if we're exposed to brands earlier, we'll go on using them."
Dewar also has an objection to the product choices in the Little Kitchen range, saying that, of 38 new collectables in the set, 25 are food products, and fewer than half of those are foods you would see as part of a balanced diet.
Products include Pringles chips, Nutri-Grain cereal, Super Wine biscuits and white bread, as well as more typically 'adult' products like a mini pink Schick Intuition Razor and a Woman's Day magazine.
"It's sending our children a signal about what a supermarket trolley should look like, and it's not in line with health guidelines," she said.
Consumer NZ research writer Belinda Castles agrees, saying the supermarkets' collectables campaigns had harnessed pester-power incredibly well.
"The kids want the collectables and they're putting pressure on parents to shop at specific places.
"I think even the parents with the best of intentions, pester-power wears them down, and it's obviously working because otherwise supermarkets wouldn't do it."
Some countries have a blanket rule whereby nothing can be marketed to children, but we have not reached that point in New Zealand, she says.
"Children can't distinguish marketing, so from a marketing perspective it's good, but I think it is unduly pressuring kids to shop at certain supermarket chains."
Fast food chain Burger King took the lead in tamping down its marketing to children, when it announced in April that it was tossing toys from its kids' meals.
The move followed the chain's halting of TV advertising targeted at children. Burger King marketing manager Chet Patel said it was a marketing decision, not a conscience one.
"It's probably not an ethical choice. We've had research saying parents don't see a huge amount of value in toys, so [ethics are] not the main driver.
"Some kids would miss the toys, but as a result the price has come down and goes down even further if the drink is fresh milk."
McDonald's says it has no plans to stop including toys as part of its Happy Meals.
There seems little doubt the collectables have been a lot of fun. None of the interested parties could deny how strangely enjoyable it has been to see household products shrunk to the size of a thimble.
As of Friday, there were 2000 "Little" listings on Trade Me, with the highest sale price on a Little Shop full set being $715, the auction site says.
Foodstuffs NZ group general manager of marketing Steve Bayliss says he has received letters begging for one final mini to complete the set.
The fun spread by the promotion has led to creative spinoffs, such as someone making an entire dress out of the collectables, coin wallets made from the foil packets, and someone collecting all the foil wrappers from the minis to create a WearableArt entry.
And as a result of its "Little" promotions, New World has gained nearly one percentage point of market share in the highly contested market, Bayliss says.
Responding to claims the supermarket is using "pester-power" to hook young consumers, Bayliss says it has not found parents are pressured to spend more at the supermarket.
"Instead what we have noticed is shoppers who may not be loyal to one supermarket brand become committed to shopping at New World during the promotion period.
"Sales figures indicate that, once people have sampled New World's offer, they like what they see and continue to remain loyal to the supermarket well after the promotion has finished."
He says leaders in children's health and wellbeing around the country, including Starship hospital, have sung the campaign's praises, and New World invited a range of suppliers to join the campaign to reflect the whole supermarket range .
"The range of 38 mini collectables reflects these items and does include such healthy items as a pineapple, banana, peach, blueberries, brown rice, bread, tuna, orange juice, yoghurt and milk, as well as teeth-care accessories."
Meanwhile, Countdown head of promotions, planning and production Sally Copland says that, with price being the main reason people choose one supermarket over another, the collectables have been about engaging customers.
"We want people to keep coming to shop with Countdown because they feel good about going into the stores, and that the supermarket understands them and has relevance to their lives.
"Ultimately, price is the major driver for Kiwi customers, and our main focus remains on driving the cost of groceries down.
"However, our collectable campaigns allow us to engage more directly with our customers on things that are fun and that families enjoy. The collectables also add a sense of delight an interest to something that many would consider a household chore: getting the weekly grocery shop done."
Asked whether its promotion involved unethical targeting of children, Copland says the collectables are educational and fun.
"Collectables have been around for generations in various forms – we think collecting is a positive activity that's fun and encourages both playing and sharing with others."
POWER TO THE PARENTS
On a purely marketing level, the campaigns are smart, Massey marketing professor Valentyna Melnyk says.
The collectables are effectively short-term loyalty schemes for kids. "They're trying to work via kids, not adults ... where parents' behaviour is being driven by bribes or something done for their kids.
"But this kind of thing also allows people to give gifts to kids that they normally wouldn't be able to give, and that makes everybody feel better.
"It's almost like a little happiness maker."
Advertising is a part of children's lives, and it is up to parents to take control of that as they grow up, she says. "I think it's part of parenting to teach them to cross the road, and it's part of parenting to teach them that brands are different."
COLLECTABLES BY THE NUMBERS
2000: approximate current listings for New World Little Shop miniature collectables on Trade Me
1350: approximate Countdown Domino Stars listings + 300 Animal Card listings on Trade Me
$715: highest sale price on a Little Shop item (full set)
$500: highest sale price on Countdown Dominos
63: average views on Little Shop Auctions
37: average views on Countdown Dominos