In March 2016, NC Trend

By Rebecca Logan

In the ever-so sage words of Taylor Swift: players gonna play, play, play, play, play. OK, so Swift might not be talking about small children. But savvy marketers are. They know that wherever kids gather en masse, so do their parents. And they are making sure their messages are there, too, by putting products everywhere from mall play areas to shelves of pretend grocery stores.

Doing so can pay off, says John Meroski, president and CEO of the Fayetteville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, which sponsors a play area at Cross Creek Mall.

“Some …  [people] look at all those parents and kids and noise and see the Chuck E. Cheese of the mall,” says Meroski. “But to me, that’s a success. … The more people who are there, the more people who can learn something about the community — or at least get a break.”

Mall owners also hope it means more people walk through their doors as they continue to battle the allure of online shopping. Chattanooga, Tenn.-based CBL & Associates Properties counts the Fayetteville mall and seven other North Carolina shopping centers among the 147 properties that it owns.

“For a mom with small energetic children, what better experience can we offer than an inviting place for her kids to engage, learn, play and expend a little energy?” CBL spokeswoman Stacey Keating says. “Non-retail amenities such as play areas are a critical part of our overall development of a property.”

Miniature mallgoers in Asheville are expending that energy on giant replicas of items their parents or grandparents could actually buy them. CBL’s Asheville Mall — which used to have an unbranded, nature-themed play area — unveiled a new one in November designed to look like a giant toy box filled with Fisher-Price products.

Grabbing the attention of today’s busy parents can be a challenge, especially as shopping behaviors continue to change. An annual brand-tracking study conducted by Smarty Pants, a New York-based marketing firm, named online retailer Amazon as the most-loved brand among moms of children ages 6 to 12 in 2015.

“I don’t know that anybody is really going to pull mom away from online shopping by offering a play area,” says Michelle Poris, head of quantitative research at Smarty Pants. “But I do think it makes sense in getting her attention …. It’s all about whatever makes the shopping experience smoother and more seamless.”

In Fayetteville, Meroski jumped at the chance to sponsor the play area when CBL approached him three years ago. Now, children play on soft covered replicas of local focal points, including a miniature Market House, Fayetteville’s signature landmark.

“They wanted four or five partners. But I said, ‘No, sign me up for the whole thing’ …,” he says. “You want to sell the space. I want to sell the community. Let’s make this partnership work.”

Malls aren’t the only places where businesses are getting in on the potential of play. At the multilevel Marbles Kids Museum in downtown Raleigh, Lowes Foods has long sponsored the Marbles mini grocery store. The Winston-Salem-based chain upped the ante last year with a major renovation to incorporate features like cooking demonstration areas that have been added to actual Lowes stores. “[Businesses] provide us with sponsorship dollars,” says museum marketing director Katy Hipp, “and they get the name recognition.”

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