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VALLEY BUSINESS | VALLEY @ WORK

Kid-Friendly Shopping Is in Infancy, but Growing

May 04, 1999|Karen Robinson-Jacobs

In ways immense and small, my life changed two years ago with the arrival of a tiny taskmaster with curly brown hair and a killer smile who answers to the name of Kyra Michelle.

Being the astute observer that I am, I knew that motherhood would mean major adjustments in my social life (I haven't any) and my disposable income (I haven't any).

But, being the shopaholic that I am, I was decidedly unprepared for the commercial estrangement that my fellow parents call "the hassle factor"--the headache that comes from trying to accomplish such seemingly mundane tasks as grocery shopping or working out, with a little one in tow.

Hairstylists that don't allow children, health clubs without child care and a host of other everyday, routine businesses with no family-friendly features form a sort of retail barrier that has some parents singing the tune, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."

"If you need to get your car washed, it's not very convenient because there's nothing for [little ones] to do," said Susan Carney, mother of 2 1/2-year-old Evan, who commutes from Simi Valley to her job at Washington Mutual in Chatsworth. "So I just don't get my car washed."

But in the true American entrepreneurial spirit, a growing number of businesses are recognizing that there's money to be made by attracting people with children.

From grocery markets with dual infant seats on the shopping carts to tiny-tot tables in wallpaper stores, regular businesses throughout the San Fernando Valley are offering amenities, large and small, to help harried parents navigate their commercial world.

So, in honor of Mother's Day this Sunday, we bring you Valley@Work's first look at some family-friendly retailers and service providers that you might not know about. It's a decidedly unscientific, largely subjective listing designed not so much to chastise those businesses that don't reach out as to laud those that do.

And if it encourages some businesses to do more, so much the better.

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Richard Giss, who tracks retailing trends as a partner with the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche LLP, said many businesses are adding family-friendly components to give them a leg up in the retailing footrace.

"I think retail is a very competitive arena, and I think anybody who can come up with an innovative idea that gives them an edge will do it," said Giss, who noted that such extras as infant seats on shopping carts, common now at grocery stores and discounters such as Target and Wal-Mart, were not available 10 years ago when his youngest was born.

"I think you are seeing more and more of that."

Giss said much of the family-friendly innovation he's seen is at shopping malls, which are perennially magnets for stroller-pushing parents.

"They are far better candidates to do some creative programs than other parts of the retail segment," said Giss, who's been watching retail trends for 20 years. "They're doing everything they can to keep people there longer."

Northridge Fashion Center, the Valley's largest mall, is seeking a corporate sponsor for a proposed children's play area that would be built on vacant land near the new Pacific 10 Theaters, according to Joey Char, marketing director for the mall.

"It all comes down to making sure that the center is very family-friendly; it's as simple as that," said Char, who noted that the center already has about 5,000 members in its NFC Kid's Club.

The club, which features a twice-monthly program and retail discounts for members, attracts up to 300 children to the center on program days.

And "each one has a parent," noted Char. "After the program, they're going to go eat and shop."

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Tarzana-based Woodcrest Schools Inc. wanted to take the concept one step further when it proposed creating a day-care center in the Conejo Valley Shopping Center in Thousand Oaks.

Plans called for the center to use space abandoned by a video store to provide daily child care and some drop-off care.

But the Thousand Oaks Planning Commission and City Council turned thumbs down on the idea last summer, after neighbors raised concerns about safety and noise. A lawsuit over the matter is pending.

Woodcrest Vice President Scott Lieberman said his company, which finds space for child-care centers and leases it out to care providers, is still looking for venues in Southern California "that might make sense."

"More and more cities are looking at instituting child-care centers in retail centers," said Lieberman, citing existing child-care centers in Yorba Linda and Anaheim Hills strip malls. "It's a growing trend."

Nearly three years ago, a Woodcrest subsidiary, Educational Concepts, worked with the Encino-based Mann Theatres chain to open a weekend child-care facility at Mann's Exchange multiplex in Glendale.

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