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Taking the Pain Out of Shopping With the Kids : Retailing: Stores and malls are offering amenities such as child-care centers, diaper-changing tables and valet parking for strollers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stores and malls across the country are realizing something their customers have known for a long time: Shopping generally is not a pleasure when accompanied by a squirming, cranky, complaining short person who used to be your bundle of joy.

Increasingly, stores and malls seem to understand the trials of parents who shop with children in tow. Moms and dads are finding more diaper-changing tables and other amenities. Like play areas and supervised child care. And even valet stroller parking.

Some of these extras are seasonal to cash in on this most shopping-intensive time of the year. And some efforts--like the coin-operated bucking bronco in front of the neighborhood grocery--are dusty fixtures on the retail landscape. But many of these are becoming a permanent part of the endless quest to attract customers.

This is a new world of retailing, where the diaper bag meets the shopping bag, where a happy shopper is a spending shopper. Consequently, retailers have been saying, good-bye child-proof, hello proof-of-purchase.

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The evidence is everywhere:

* Several malls this holiday season are offering state-licensed child-care centers so that parents can shop in peace for a few hours. Retailers Stor and Ikea, which compete with similar European-style furniture lines, have permanent supervised kids’ playrooms and offer free strollers to shoppers.

* Nordstrom, which a few years ago set the pace by placing diaper-changing tables in some men’s restrooms, features comfortable lounges in women’s restrooms that are popular with nursing mothers.

* Blockbuster Video in El Monte sports a small playhouse where children can watch movies while their parents search for something to rent. “It’s pretty popular, especially on weekends,” said customer service representative Jannine Zamora.

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* South Coast Plaza in Orange County is offering valet stroller parking again this holiday season, and “people love it,” spokeswoman Hilary P. Townsend said. Some baby strollers cost well above $200, and “you wouldn’t want that to be stolen,” she said.

Stores are trying to turn shopping into child’s play for parents because they need the business.

Regional malls were novel 15 or 20 years ago, and “people would walk to bloody stumps to get to those national retailers,” said Larry Ebel, senior vice president of RPA, a retail planning and consulting firm in Columbus, Ohio. That isn’t the case anymore, he said.

“We are in the era of the democratization of shopping, and all sorts of warm and fuzzy things are being done to bring the retail center back to a human scale,” Ebel said.

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Ebel noted that he was recently in a GapKids store with his 14-month-old godson, “and I couldn’t get him out of there.”

“They have so many whistles and bells to keep kids entertained while their parents shop,” he said. “It endears the parents and makes things more civilized.”

The retail community is trying to cope with “a new kind of customer; they’re educated, they’re cultured and they very often have a shorter time to shop,” Ebel said. “The non-working woman might spend the day at the mall, but the working mother doesn’t have time to do that.”

Some of this parent-friendly retailing is modest--a table of toys at a wallpaper store or a never-ending video display in a children’s clothing department. Other efforts are more impressive, like the full-sized carousel operated year-round at South Coast Plaza.

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Santa Anita Fashion Park in Arcadia has developed a loyal following for Camp Rainbow, a state-licensed day-care center that the mall houses in the summer and during the Christmas shopping season.

The center, one of eight mall day-care centers run by Center Promotions of Running Springs, Calif., provides supervised activities for children aged 2 through 12. The cost is $2 an hour for up to three hours, and parents are given a beeper so they can be reached if needed, said administrator Pat Rivadeneyra.

“This attracts people to the mall,” Rivadeneyra said. “I’ve had people come from San Dimas just to drop the kids off and go shopping,” she said. Nearly 650 children visited Camp Rainbow last Christmas season.

El Monte resident Kathleen Carter said her 4-year-old son Sean has stayed at Camp Rainbow six or seven times.

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“He loves it in there,” she said. And for Carter, “it’s easier to go shopping without my son because he likes to handle everything, especially glass.”

Ikea dispenses free disposable diapers in the baby rooms at its furniture stores, six of which are in the United States. The service proved so popular that at a crowded New Jersey store opening last year, the retailer ran out of diapers and distraught parents were seen waving bare-bottomed children around and demanding a refill.

“They were so used to us having diapers that they didn’t even bring their own,” spokeswoman Cynthia Neiman said.

Some of this is what one mother called “window dressing”; it looks good but isn’t always practical. Parents complain that it can be difficult to get a small child to stay happily in a strange child-care situation, and most centers at stores and malls require that a child be toilet trained.

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Other frequent complaints: elevators that are difficult to locate, merchandise-packed aisles in stores that are too narrow for strollers, a shortage of places to nurse infants comfortably and diaper-changing tables that are too often dirty.

Like many parents interviewed, Judy Albright said she rewards stores and malls that cater to her needs with repeat business. Albright has two daughters, aged 2 and 4, and a third child is due next year.

“When my babies are nursing,” Albright said, “I always shop at Nordstrom because of the living room area (in the women’s restroom) where you can nurse.”


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