- Associated Press - Monday, September 3, 2012

Want to cut the time and hassle of shopping for your kids?

A bevy of subscription buying services with names like FabKids and Kiwi Crate have emerged over the past year that cater to parents who want help keeping their kids dressed and entertained.

Think of it as a modern, kid-friendly spin on the “Beer-of-the-Month Club” model.

For $20 to $40 a month, selected items arrive at your doorstep in brightly colored boxes, saving time and gas money. Most services offer free shipping, and some say they’re actually cheaper than going to the store.

But shopping experts say you also could go broke if you don’t do your homework. Those monthly fees can add up — not to mention the temptation to go “subscription happy,” signing up for a host of services that just clutter up the house. And you have to weigh which services best suit your needs and offer the most flexibility in returns and other financial terms.

“This saves shoppers time,” said Sucharita Mulpuru, a Forrester Research analyst. “It creates a shortcut in their lives. But the challenge is whether the quality of merchandise is good, whether it’s useful and whether you get value.”

Here’s what to think about:

Figure out your needs: First, consider how useful or enjoyable the service is. Check out the sites’ Facebook and Twitter feeds to see what others are saying about them.

For arts-and-crafts activities, sites including Kiwi Crate, Green Kid Crafts and Babbaco offer projects the companies say are selected by panels of experts. These projects, which are different each month, range from papier-mache moons to paper robots.

For services like these, it’s important to be realistic about how much time you’ll be able to devote to the projects, which can take several hours.

Do you really want to be surprised?: Not all the services let you choose exactly what you get. That may be a bigger issue for clothing, because it’s a more personal purchase.

Some services try to customize the experience. FabKids personalizes the three-piece outfits for girls based on a 15-question quiz that includes questions on size and age as well as the child’s favorite color and even personality traits.

Based on that profile, FabKids emails you three top outfit picks. If you don’t like them, you can go to the site to pick something else.

If you like the luck of the draw, however, you might be better off with Wittlebee, which sends six items each month. The site targets children from newborn to 5 years old. Members can specify style preferences and needs. For example, are you looking for pajamas or socks? But the company throws in a twist. Wittlebee’s CEO Sean Percival says, “You get half of what you want.” The other half is a surprise.

Be clear on what you get: Consider what you’re getting in that box. For example, Kiwi Crate and Babbaco provide the first pair of scissors in the first shipment, and always provide glue. But for Green Kid Crafts, you’re buying your own. The service’s hook is that all its materials are eco-friendly.

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