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The Kids Are Online

Children are hitting the Web–and spending

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Mom and Dad’s dollars. What’s a parent to do? The Internet has officially become an annoyance for Barbara Smeltzer. The Oscoda, Mich., mom began surfing the Net with her kids last year, but despite continually steering Alex, 9, and Paige, 8, to education sites, the wee Smeltzers more often ended up on e-commerce pages, lured by kid-centric designs, recognizable products, and games galore.

In short, they were building healthy appetites for stuff. And when Paige headed to Barbie.com to design her very own cyberdoll, what began as a creative exercise ended as a creative pitch — with an order form offering to make the doll for her for $39.95. ”It’s just a hassle,” sighs Smeltzer.

It’s a sentiment you’ll be hearing more and more from parents. Internet-research firm Jupiter Communications estimates that by 2002, 21.9 million kids (ages 5 to 12) and 16.6 million teens (ages 13 to 18) will be online—an increase of 155 percent and 97 percent, respectively, from 1998. Those same 5- to 18-year-olds will spend $1.3 billion online in 2002, according to Jupiter. You can almost hear the drip-drip-drip of e-tailers’ saliva. San Francisco e-commerce marketer Felicia Lindau, who helped launch Amazon.com, says it most succinctly: ”They’re a great target.”

And how is Generation Y being targeted? With sites so addictive that kids will surf by even if they aren’t planning to shop. For instance, CDNOW (http://www.cdnow.com), which CEO Jason Olim bills as the ”most teened site on the Internet,” has begun offering tons of free song downloads—a proven attractor.

The real secret is to forge a sense of community. Youth-fashion trend master dELiAs (http://www.delias.com) is particularly adept at this cyberscene, thanks to partnerships with gURL.com, chat-and-advice forums, hip e-cards, and ”tWiSTed e-MaIL”—a riff on Mad Libs. Another master: teen-approved fashion designer Steve Madden, whose site (http://www.stevemad den.com) has enjoyed a 13-fold increase in hits since its 1997 launch. The key? Fab shoes, of course—but also lots of projected online interaction in the Maddenworld section, which opens Jan. 1 and will include advice, events, astrology, and a fan club. Says Rhonda Brown, COO of Steven Madden Ltd., ”The way we design footwear has a direct relationship to feedback from our customers: the music they listen to, the fashion they’re interested in, the aspirational nature of their lives.” Not to mention the projected $1 million the company expects to make from online sales in 1999.

Another by-product of the marriage between acquisitive kids and the e-tail boom? Nervous parents. In a recent Jupiter study, 45 percent of parents surveyed expressed concern about marketing to kids, up from 17 percent in 1998. The Web’s ever-blurring line between content and commerce is a particular sore point for grown-ups. ”There are lots of sites geared toward girls that suggest that they want to empower girls, give them a voice,” says Katharina Kopp, senior policy analyst for the Center for Media Education (http://www.cme.org), a Washington, D.C.-based public-interest group. ”But ultimately, it’s about figuring out what makes these girls tick—and then turning around and using that information to market to them.” Kopp suggests that Mom or Dad at least explain to younger kids the underlying purpose of many content-oriented e-commerce sites.