- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 11, 2002

Reston mother Jill Gallagher loads her daughters into the family minivan every August and heads out. The goal: to buy clothes for the new school year.

With four girls ages 4 to 10, she nearly has it down to a science.

"We always start with sneakers. They all get a new pair to start school, and lots of times I get their sneakers and shoes at J.C. Penney," says Mrs. Gallagher, who also is the mother of a newborn girl.

Then, she says, the road might lead to the Old Navy store and the Gap Outlet in Leesburg, Va., where she buys the bulk of her daughters' new school clothes.

"I always buy them new clothes so they go to school with a few outfits that they look and feel good in," Mrs. Gallagher says. "It's not like they're reinventing themselves but it's like they're presenting to a new class and a new teacher and they're a year older, so it's another level of maturity. I want them to go to school and present that they're clean and ready for learning."

Indeed, the new school year with its new teachers, books, classes and friends is a huge rite of passage for children. Whether by necessity or by design, new clothes often are part of the equation, as well.

Back-to-school clothes shopping, or "B2S" in retailese, can provide a "significant boost" to the coffers of many retailers, says Sarah Scheuer, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Association. On the home front, it is an annual task that is endured by some folks and enjoyed by others.

"Last year, my third daughter said [shopping day] was the best day of the summer," Mrs. Gallagher says. "We've kind of perfected it over the years. We try to be efficient with our money and our time. I need clothes that are age-appropriate, that will last and don't drive me to bankruptcy. I let them look around themselves. They see what they like and they show me. I either agree or disagree."

Back-to-school shopping is an opportunity to start a fresh, new year with limitless possibilities, says Mimi Doe, author of "Busy but Balanced" and a consultant who lectures worldwide on parenting issues and styles.

"Chances are, there's a real need [to shop] anyway they can't fit into any of their old clothes," she says. "On the flip side, every kid wants to feel good about themselves. Often, kids go into it with expectations of creating their new persona for their new grade."

This notion should not be dismissed by parents, says Judith Mueller, a psychotherapist and executive director of the Vienna-based Women's Center.

Children "really do believe in order to be in a peer-acceptance mode, they need to have a fashion statement, a clothing presentation of themselves that signals, clues in and conveys a message of self-perception," Ms. Mueller says. "Just as an adult is conscious of 'clothing makes the man' or appropriate business dress, kids thoroughly understand that the clothes they wear make a significant statement about who they are. It's important to wear the message."

To get that message, consumers with school-age children said they will spend an average of $442 per household on back-to-school shopping this year, a sum relatively unchanged from last year's average of $457 per household, according to a just-released National Retail Federation survey. It appears that low-income households (those earning $25,000 or less per year) will spend a greater portion of their income toward back-to-school shopping, spending an average $513.

D.C. mother Sue Daoulas says she will head out to Montgomery Mall this month to shop for school clothes for son Arthur, 13, and daughter Arianna, 12, students at Alice Deal Junior High. Ms. Daoulas, a part-time consultant, says each of her children want to look cool, but "their definitions are different."

Those definitions are kept in check by the faculty and staff at Deal, one of many area schools both public and private that enforce a dress code.

"My job is made simpler," Ms. Daoulas says. "The girls' shorts have to be as long as their arm, and no stomachs," for example. "On boys, they can't wear sweat pants and hooded sweat shirts."

Anyway, Ms. Daoulas' son favors long, baggy shorts and oversized shirts and sports jerseys "nothing that looks remotely preppy," she says. "And my daughter likes things that look neat but not preppy. She likes to shop at stores like American Eagle and J. Crew. He likes Sears, that sells more ordinary clothes."

Ms. Daoulas says she probably will spend "close to a couple hundred dollars on each of them. They're fine with that as long as they have enough to wear a different top every day. It's not too bad financially because I've got my kids convinced that sales are good. My daughter is not concerned about the bottom line of how much I spend as how many clothes we get out of it. My son would be happy to go to Target, and my daughter wants the American Eagle brand on her shirt, which is why she agrees to buying the things on sale."

Ms. Daoulas' daughter isn't alone in her desire to sport clothing made by specific manufacturers. Retailers even have coined a term for the practice of buying according to type: branding.

"Branding is a company's attempt to create a product or service that connects with kids and adults on a deeply emotional level," says Gene Del Vecchio, author of "Creating Ever-Cool, A Marketer's Guide to a Kid's Heart."

"Many people think that manufacturers are Pied Pipers, playing a tune as kids follow, but the opposite is actually the truth," he says. "Kids are running in every direction at once, and manufacturers are constantly trying to chase after them to see what kids will want, and what parents will accept. Retailers look at things like who are the key kid idols today and what are they wearing. Clothes are one of those things that kids will attach themselves to because they're being worn by people they admire."

Children are "voting" with every request they make to their parents, and parents are "voting" every time they decide to open or close their pocketbooks, he says.

Real-life shopping

Retailer Digna Rodriguez-Poulton watches pocketbooks open and close all day long in her Westwood, N.J., shop, Daisy & Lilly, which focuses on the "tween" market of girls ages 8 to 12.

"It's fascinating what you see in the course of the day when you see a mother and daughter shopping together," she says. "Sometimes it's a mother who is very fashionable herself, and her daughter is emulating what she sees at home. Other times it's that the mom is dressing the child the way she wishes she could dress something she could not wear because she doesn't have the figure for it anymore."

Ms. Rodriguez-Poulton says she sees how much money parents are spending on their children, as well. An average price for a two-piece outfit, she says, is $30 to $35.

"Go to the Gap or Limited Too, and a two-piece outfit is $60 to $80. If the quality is good and it's going to be something she will wear lots of times, it's OK," she says.

A big mistake is to shop without the child, she says.

"As a retailer, whenever a mother shops for a child without the child, it comes back," Ms. Rodriguez-Poulton says. "She may like it, but she wants to be part of the process. And the parent who is insistent about an outfit the child really hates would do well to remember that the child might wear it once to please her but never again, and is that cost-efficient?"

She advises parents to look through magazines with their children to discuss the different fashions they'll see in the stores.

Parenting author and consultant Ms. Doe suggests parents embrace the occasion of school-clothes shopping as a new beginning and a fresh start.

"Plan the experience with your child," she says. "Lay out the budget. Ask your child to do his or her work before you head to the shop go through the closet, see what fits. Get a read on what's critical, what would be nice and what would be pure fun. And now I also say to the kids, 'Let's do back-to-school shopping a few weeks after school begins,' because what your child thinks he or she wants may not jive with what everyone else has. It's fact. My work and parenting go against buying into consumerism. The reality is that we still live in this world and in this world we have children who care deeply about how they look and how they fit in. It's really important to parents to understand this."

Ms. Mueller says: "Tuned-in, astute parents have not forgotten how they agonized at the same age regarding the socks, the pants, the shoes, the collars, the colors and the belts that characterized and sent messages among their peers. … It's a means of conveying who I am, and sensitive parents understand."

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