Rosenthal: Toys don't add much value to kids meals

Giveaways continue in foods and elsewhere, but the impact of the freebies has declined

My kids, ages 7 and 9, like the stickers they get after their doctor appointments, but they aren't clamoring to visit the pediatrician just to get them.

It's not that different from their attitude toward fast-food restaurants. They like the toys that come with kids meals, but rarely ask to eat there just to get them. They sometimes have asked for a particular McDonald's or Burger King giveaway that has been widely touted, but the restaurant they ask for most is Chipotle, where they're partial to off-menu quesadillas, and they generally prefer a meal at home.

What's surprising is this isn't so unusual. The lure and impact of fast-food toys, a hot-button issue among activists concerned with childhood diets, aren't what they used to be.

Taco Bell just the other day said it is phasing out its children's menu and toys over the next six months, noting that kids meals are not part of its "long-term brand strategy and have had an insignificant impact on system sales." Industrywide, kids meals with toys are not the sellers they once were. Today's children seem to have more complex tastes in food and fun.

"Kids meals with toys have been on the decline since the beginning of the recession," said Bonnie Riggs, Rosemont-based restaurant analyst for NPD Group, a consumer research and consulting firm.

Just as there is no free lunch, there is also no free toy. The giveaways that continue today, not just in fast food, but as enticements to consumers elsewhere, are closely scrutinized on both sides of the cash register, whether you're talking about breakfast food or ballgames. Movie theaters no longer stage the Dish Nights that boosted attendance back in the 1930s. But there's still candy-coated popcorn, peanuts and a prize in a package of Cracker Jack.

It's more than just straight-up economics that determine the return on investment. Some freebies are rooted in tradition and to fail to meet the expectations built on decades of past prizes, gifts and bonuses could be costly. But always the giver and givee must feel there's extra value in the extras.

"We recognize that for most American families, it's part of the history of cereal and one of the reasons they love what they love and why they love it," said Julie Anderla, an executive with General Mills, maker of cereals such as Cheerios and Lucky Charms. "At the end of the day, you're going to go for the brands of cereal you want at a price you like. But in a tough economy where parents aren't able to get a lot of extras for their families, it's nice to know that in that cereal box they were probably going to buy anyway, there's a little something extra."

Anderla said it's hard to track the sales impact of the toys, books, movie ticket vouchers or whatever promotion, which are planned 12 to 18 months before they hit grocers' shelves. But seeing as how "the cereal category has had some kind of surprise in the box, or near the box or on the box since the early 1900s," the failure to deliver could be costly and the number of giveaways hasn't varied much for at least the last 20 years.

Cracker Jack, the snack food introduced at Chicago's World Columbian Exposition 120 years ago, has been including a prize in packages since 1912. To mark the 100th anniversary last year, it staged a promotion that had a few vouchers for diamond rings among the stickers and temporary tattoos that in recent years replaced the trinkets once found in its boxes.

"We recently modernized Cracker Jack snack prizes with new digital components, including classic stickers with fun facts and special codes that offer surprises online," spokesman Chad Darwin said. "Our fans can now go to our new Cracker Jack-branded mobile app, featuring two nostalgic games — baseball and pinball — available free."

For the Chicago White Sox, freebies such as bobblehead dolls, hats, jerseys, replica statues, and batting helmets for kids and adults may be sponsored by marketing partners of the team. But Brooks Boyer, the team's marketing chief, said there sometimes is value in a giveaway even if the team must foot the bill.

"We think that expense is worth the impact that you'll have positively on getting people to the ballpark, or there's an impact on getting people to the ballpark earlier so they'll likely choose to eat here, maybe visit the team store," Boyer said. "It's not the ultimate driver (for attendance), but as we look at it, when you can add value to any ticket that's purchased, it's worthwhile."

The problem for fast-food families at the moment is that the value proposition isn't always there. My wife had the kids on a hunt to complete a set of Major League Baseball minihelmets a few summers ago, but the suspicion is the three of them liked bonding over frozen treats they would have had anyway. Cost-consciousness is key.

"During the height of the recession, consumers cut back," Riggs said. "Families with kids cut back on visiting restaurants and they switched from ordering kids meals with toys to ordering from the value menu. A kids meal with toy, the average check in 2012 was $4.88, up 11 percent since 2007. That's quite an increase, and I just don't think Mom and Dad see the value in that. Plus, the kids meal with toy isn't the attraction for kids that it once was. Maybe it is for little ones, those around 2, 3, 4 years of age. But you get past that and kids are really tech savvy. They're running around with all these gadgets, and they've outgrown the kids meal."

The prices increased in part, according to Riggs, because of political and marketplace pressure on the chains to provide more and healthier menu choices for young people. But another complication is changing tastes among the kids themselves. "Kids today are not like kids of 10 years ago," Riggs said. "They have more sophisticated palates."

Given Taco Bell's menu items that seem like they've been cobbled from dorm-room party leftovers — i.e., a brownie sandwich, tacos with shells fashioned after Doritos snack chips — the Mexican-style chain had already telegraphed to families and everyone else that its focus is on millennials. The fact that my basketball-fan son wasn't enticed by its recent NBA card giveaways ("one of our most popular" promotions, according to a Taco Bell spokesman) speaks to the missed connection.

An appetite for one thing doesn't automatically mean there's an appetite for another, regardless of price.

philrosenthal@tribune.com

Twitter @phil_rosenthal

Featured Stories

CTnow is using Facebook comments on stories. To comment on ctnow.com articles, sign into Facebook and enter your comment in the field below. Comments will appear in your Facebook News Feed unless you choose otherwise. To report spam or abuse, click the X next to the comment. For guidelines on commenting, click here.

BUSINESS MIDDAY


BUSINESS MIDDAY

Business Midday Get daily business news sent directly to your inbox for free weekdays at 1 p.m.



SEE SAMPLE | SIGN IN
After signing in, click on your username at the top left of this screen and then on "My Newsletter Subscriptions."