Cheap Kids' Clothes
Between rips, growth spurts, and claims that clothes are too "babyish," frugal families are constantly prowling for cheap kids' clothes, especially during the back-to-school shopping season. To help harried parents strike that delicate balance between cost and quality, we hit the stores to look for cheap school clothes for children 7 to 10 years old. We visited Kohl's, Target, Kmart, Walmart, Old Navy, JC Penney, and Sears to look for a whole list of items including low-cost kids' tops and pants, school uniforms, underwear, shoes, boys' and girls' pajamas, and outerwear.
In our shopping cart test of cheap kids' clothes, Walmart was the clear winner with the lowest total: $218.36. The store also came out on top in the jeans and underwear match-ups. In jeans, Walmart offers the lowest prices for relatively high quality; the durable fabric is unlikely to rip or fray easily. Many retailers carry the same brands of panties and briefs, training bras, socks, undershirts, and tights, but Walmart sells them at the lowest prices. Customers seem to like Walmart as a place to stock up on these basic items.
Excellent quality jeans and polo shirts at affordable prices make Old Navy a top choice. This retailer also boasted the greatest assortment of outerwear when we shopped toward the end of July. Consumers say the kids' clothes are well-priced and right up there with the latest fashion trends. One arena where Old Navy flags is its return policy. In certain situations you can only get a store credit mailed to you rather than receiving it on the spot. We also found a very limited selection of shoes, and pajamas are available only online.
Frugal shoppers say Kohl's offers a wide range of high-quality brands for low prices. While the store proved most expensive in our shopping cart test, the coupons and in-store discounts are impressive and help lower prices drastically. We found that Kohl's kids' dress clothes, including dresses and pants, surpass the rest with a large selection of items that should last a while. Plus, the return policy is unbeatable -- completely hassle-free, meaning you can return just about anything at any time with or without a receipt.
Target outshines the competition in budget kids' shoes. It boasts an outstanding selection at very low prices and several shoppers laud the quality. Cheap kids' tops also seem to be a good value at Target; fabric used in the Cherokee brand seems quite durable. Most customers seem satisfied with Target's back-to-school options and consider the return policy easy to work with. On the downside, we found a limited selection in certain categories, such as uniforms, pajamas, and dress clothes.
One word -- uniforms. JC Penney stocks high-quality, low-cost versions of every imaginable item your child might need. Selection is good in most other categories, as well, although prices are another story. The retailer has whished through several pricing strategies in recent years and has a history of using artificially high prices to make sale items more enticing. As for quality, the Arizona brand ranks up there with the best when comparing T-shirts, hoodies, and polo shirts.
Everything you need for your child's back-to-school wardrobe can be found in-store at Sears. That's right -- from underwear to uniforms and everything in between, it's all there. But you may pay slightly higher prices for the one-stop-shopping convenience. Still, consumers don't have any complaints about shopping at Sears.
Kmart offers shoppers something of a mixed bag. Although jeans are well-priced and sturdy, most tops seem a bit flimsy. Customers seem split in their opinions of Kmart. One mom told us the quality of the cheap kids' clothes seems to have improved over the past few years, while others say they don't shop at Kmart because of the flimsy materials used to make the clothing. In addition, the return policy is quite strict.
Cheap Kids' Clothes Buying Guide
Our first foray, back in 2011, revealed that the cheapest store overall for back-to-school clothes was Walmart. In that test we were able to outfit two kids for just $218.36 (before tax).
That said, Walmart, like many other stores we compared, didn't carry everything on our list in store; we had to look for some cheap kids' clothes online. A few items on our list (coats, boots, and boys' dress shoes) weren't available from every retailer in store or online -- at least at the time of our test, toward the end of July -- so we didn't include them in our totals. The only store that did carry everything you might need is Sears, which totaled $546.40 in our initial shopping cart test. The most expensive store was Kohl's, totaling $705.13. However, the test did not include sale prices or coupons, and many parents favor Kohl's for its storewide sales and exceptional coupons. We were hard-pressed to find anyone shopping at Kohl's who doesn't buy on sale or use a coupon.
The cost of clothing hasn't increased much since 2011 -- 1.8 percent in 2012 and 0.6 percent in 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The New York Times reports that inflation in kids' clothing prices historically has been much lower than the inflation rate for apparel overall. JC Penney has gone through a series of price gyrations in the past couple of years, however. In 2012 the retailer hired a new CEO to help revitalize the business. As Bloomberg explains it, the chain instituted drastic price reductions and eliminated most sale events, cutting down to just 12 a year from close to 600. But by spring of 2013, the new CEO was gone and JC Penney had reverted to its earlier pricing ways. According to Time, sales, promotions, and discounts are back, accompanied by rising prices. In our kids' clothes price comparison research in 2013, JC Penney prices had fallen below those posted in 2011, but not enough to bring the company down from its perch near the top of the pricing order. (Prices in our 2014 spot check were similar, give or take $2 to $5.)
While Walmart is the clear winner on overall price, no store is truly a one-stop shop for the cheapest kids' clothes. Different stores excel in different clothing categories based on a combination of price, selection, and quality. Walmart takes the cake in underwear, pajamas, and pants, while Kohl's wins the dress clothes categories. We found that Kohl's is most often cited by shoppers for generally offering high-quality clothes that rarely fall apart prematurely. Old Navy is a clear winner in both boys' and girls' tops as well as in discount kids' outerwear -- what there was of it, anyway. Old Navy impressed our researcher with the quality of its cheap kids' clothes, which also proved durable in a test by Good Housekeeping. JC Penney is the place to shop for discount school uniforms, but Target also offers a wide selection.
Read on for more details of our findings, but keep in mind that each store's offerings, prices, sales, and coupons may differ from location to location and from our original findings.