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Cheap Kids' Clothes Shopping Cart Test

At each store we shopped for a long list of back-to-school clothes to compare the total cost of outfitting two children, a boy and a girl, with one of each item. While the shopping cart test didn't give us all the answers, it did give us the bottom-line cheapest store.

Into our cart went back-to-school clothes including boys' and girls' uniform shirts and pants; girls' uniform skirts; boys' and girls' shorts, including gym shorts; boys' and girls' jeans, T-shirts and hoodies; boys' dress pants, polo shirts, and button-down shirts; and girls' dresses, skirts, and fashion tops.

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We also included boys' and girls' socks, underwear and pajamas; boys' undershirts; girls' training bras, leggings, and tights; boys' and girls' sneakers; boys' and girls' accessories such as belts, hair ties, and jewelry; and girls' dress shoes. While we did look at boys' dress shoes, boys' and girls' boots, and boys' and girls' outerwear, not every store carried those items, so we didn't include them in our totals. Again, our shopping cart calculations include only one of each item. (For underwear, socks, and other items that came in packs, we calculated the cost per item in order to make a direct comparison.) The original shopping cart test, in 2011, revealed Walmart to be the cheapest store for back-to-school clothes, at $218.36 (before tax), and Kohl's to be the most expensive, at $705.13. Falling in between were Target, at $293.88; Kmart, at $295.47; Old Navy, at $386.81; Sears at $546.40; and JC Penney, at $597.68. With JC Penney's new prices from 2013, the total for our list of items comes to $459.32, placing it slightly cheaper than Sears but still at the high end of the pack.

Of course, your children likely will need more than one of some items and may have some categories covered already. A useful guide from Scholastic recommends three to five pairs of pants, 10 to 14 pairs of socks, 10 pairs of underwear, six to 10 shirts, two to three sweatshirts, a matching skirt and top combination for girls, two pairs of shoes, one pair of boots, and coats for fall, winter, and rain.

Clothing Availability.

The shopping cart test brought to light several variables. For starters, not every store carried every item. If you're looking for a true one-stop shop for back-to-school clothes, Sears was the only store with everything on our list, including outerwear, boots, and boys' dress shoes. JC Penney and Kohl's were missing only four items in store and Old Navy and Target were missing six items each from our list. Falling behind the pack were Kmart, which didn't carry seven items on our list in store, and Walmart, which was missing nine items.

We were able to find some of those missing items online, so we included them in our shopping cart test to account for the fact that different locations carry different items. Just about everything in store can also be found online, often with low-cost or free shipping. The only problem with shopping for back-to-school clothes online is that your children can't try on the clothes before you buy them. Kids grow so fast there's just no way to know their sizes from year to year unless they try the clothes on.

Store Coupons.

Sales and coupons can drastically reduce your total at the cash register. Sales on back-to-school clothes were abundant when we originally shopped, on weekdays at the end of July in 2011, and talking to employees at several stores indicated that 2013 would be no different. Just about every item at Kohl's seemed to be on sale, while Walmart features rollback prices of the day. JC Penney and Sears both had back-to-school sales during that period, while Target and Kmart included select back-to-school items in their weekly discount ads. Even after JC Penney eliminated most sales and promotions, the retailer continued to run back-to-school sales. Old Navy also had a sale on select back-to-school items when we were there. However, we didn't include any sale prices in our shopping cart test.

Kohl's is the winner when it comes to coupons. The store constantly sends Kohl's card members coupons for 10, 20, and 30 percent off -- and if no coupons have been sent out, the store typically allows card members to scratch a ticket at checkout to reveal a 10, 20, or 30 percent discount to be used immediately. One shopper we spoke to said she shops at Kohl's often and gets low prices because she always has a coupon; one time she forgot the coupon and the store honored it anyway, she said. Old Navy also sends card members regular coupons, while Target sends out coupons and also offers e-coupons. Walmart and Kmart have coupons available online, but none the week we shopped were for back-to-school items. Sears features weekly ads with discounts and has a deal of the day while JC Penney is re-instituting promotional deals, but neither store has coupons that we saw.

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