On a recent field trip, 16 kindergartners and 2nd graders from a private school in suburban Washington touched baby snakes no bigger than their pinky fingers, saw a spotted leopard gecko, and marveled at Nemo, a real clown fish.
But these children from the 145-student Ets Chiyim School in Montgomery Village, Md., weren’t visiting Washington’s National Zoo, a 35-minute drive away. Rather, they walked through the fluorescent-lit, merchandise-laden aisles of a local Petco, a San Diego, Calif.-based pet-store chain with 690 locations nationwide.
Ets Chiyim is one of a growing number of public and private schools whose students have taken “retail” field trips to outlets such as Petco, Sports Authority, Winn-Dixie, and the carmaker Saturn. Until recently, students could also take field trips to Toys R Us stores. The national toy seller, which has suffered major financial losses, withdrew funding for the trips this year.
These and other retailers have paid the Chicago-based Field Trip Factory, once known as Chicago Promotion Group Inc., to get students through their doors. This new type of retail “outreach” at a time of tight school budgets has proved successful, but has also generated criticism as a blatant promotional tactic.
The number of trips the Field Trip Factory organized has more than doubled over the past three years, from 5,000 in 2001 to 12,000 last year, according to the company’s president, Susan Singer. Schools participated in two-thirds of the trips, while scout troops and summer camps took the remaining third.
Ms. Singer and other boosters of retail field trips, which are available in 48 states, argue that the 60- to 90-minute tours are tied to national education standards, are free to schools, and even help strengthen community bonds.
“Children learn through experience, and that often takes place out of school,” said Ms. Singer. “They’re faced with difficult choices: What do I read? What do I watch? What do I eat? We’re hoping that through these [field trips], we’re helping them to make better decisions.”
Creating ‘Brand Loyalty’?
But critics counter that such field trips are nothing more than a savvy and aggressive marketing ploy disguised as education to get students and their families to buy the participating stores’ products.
“This is essentially taking advantage of schools … and exploiting them for profit,” said Susan Linn, the associate director of Judge Baker’s Media Center, a nonprofit child-research group affiliated with Harvard University, and the author of Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood. “That some educational things happen doesn’t cancel out the fact that a lot of selling goes on.”
Diane E. Levin, an education professor at Wheelock College in Boston, said schools’ endorsement of retail field trips gives companies extra clout with children. And that, she said, is dangerous.
“Kids are taught to respect and value what the school is trying to teach them,” Ms. Levin said. “So when they go on these field trips that present [the companies] in a very positive light, it creates brand loyalty in them.”
“Teaching kids is the school’s job, not a [company’s] job,” she added. “Companies don’t have the best interests of children at heart. They have the best interests of shareholders at heart. That’s their job.”
Some experts, however, suggest that if the retail trips are approached intelligently, they can be educational.
“It’s the responsibility of the teacher to give the flip side, to teach kids that [companies] are trying to tell them something,” said Lynda M. Maddox, a marketing and advertising professor at George Washington University. “This is a great educational tool as long as it’s done responsibly. … [T]hese kids are growing up in a capitalist society. Why shouldn’t [consumer behavior] be part of their education?”
Student field trips to retail stores are nothing new. Teachers for years have taken their classes to the local bakery, for example, or the local bank. Even Ms. Linn remembers taking trips as a schoolgirl to a Wonder Bread factory.
What’s different now is that retailers and food and beverage companies have greatly intensified their advertising to children, marketing experts say.
Companies across the country poured $500 billion into advertising and other marketing to children of all ages in 2002, according to research by Texas A&M University in College Station.
And no wonder: Children are a huge demographic market and therefore a lucrative one. Children ages 4 to 12 spent $30 billion of their own money last year, while teenagers spent $175 billion in 2003, according to Teenage Research Unlimited, a market-research firm based in Northbrook, Ill.
That doesn’t include the young er generation’s considerable influence on their parents’ spending habits. Mothers alone spend an estimated $1.6 trillion a year on products and services for their families, according to the market- research firm bsm Media in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“Businesses are looking for new ways to attract younger custom ers,” said Ms. Maddox of George Washington University, located in Washington. “One thing we know about human behavior—establish a relationship, and they’re more likely to be loyal to you. And if they can get kids into a store and establish a relationship with them, it’s worth their weight in gold.”
On Petco’s “Fur, Feather & Fins” field trip, a store employee teaches students about different animal characteristics and behavior, as well as how to care for them as pets. At Sports Authority, students learn the importance of exercise, sports safety, and different types of athletic gear and clothing. And for Lowes Foods’ “Be a Smart Shopper!” field trip program, students learn nutrition and healthy meal and snack planning while sampling organic baby carrots and kiwi fruit.
“There is no better education classroom than the supermarket,” said Cindy Silver, the corporate nutritionist for Lowes Foods, based in Winston-Salem, N.C. “The children use all of their five senses: They touch and taste, and that’s where the best learning happens.”
Teachers can download classroom activities from the Field Trip Factory Web site to supplement the field trips. A worksheet for Petco instructs students to color in the outlines of a fish, a frog, a bird, and a rat—all animals available for purchase at the store.
A Lowes worksheet declares “Exercise is good for the heart!” and asks students to draw heart-healthy activities, such as riding a bike and playing outside, as well as “grocery shopping.”
At the end of the field trips, students get goodie bags from the retailers. A Petco bag contains stickers of fish, reptiles, birds, and mice emblazoned with “petco” across the top, a red and blue temporary paper tattoo of the Petco logo, a Petco lollipop, and a 99-cent coupon for a Betta fish.
Teacher Jane Dando of Maryland’s Ets Chiyim, a Jewish day school that serves grades K-12, plans to use the coupons to buy fish for her classroom.
Critics such as Ms. Linn point to the bags of giveaways as a clever method for retailers to get not just into school classrooms, but also into students’ homes.
“The kids go home with this stuff, and Petco is advertised endlessly,” she said.
Teachers whose students attend Lowes Foods field trips get 25-cent and 50-cent discount coupons for foods and drinks such as saltine crackers, fruit juice, and string cheese—good only for the Lowes Foods brands of those products.
Petco spokesman Shawn Underwood brushes aside complaints.
“There’s a profound educational element to our [field trip] that helps produce good members of society,” he said. “If teachers don’t see a value, they wouldn’t do it.”
Ms. Singer of the Field Trip Factory said her company, founded in 1998, wouldn’t exist if it didn’t meet educators’ needs.
“If we didn’t deliver a quality program, we wouldn’t be growing,” she said.
Ms. Dando and another Ets Chiyim teacher, Deborah Robinson, said the retail field trips are easier and cheaper than going to a museum or the zoo. And the Petco trip allowed students to touch and get close to the animals, which they typically wouldn’t be able to do in a zoo, the teachers said.
“It intensified their curiosity in science,” Ms. Dando said. “Nobody groans [in science class] now.”
Ets Chiyim 2nd graders Leonard Grant, Emmanuel Tsuma, and Ruth Espinoza talked excitedly about the turtles and fish they saw, and the reptiles and mice they petted, on their trip to Petco.
When asked if they wanted to go back to the store to buy a pet, they all smiled widely.
In unison, they chimed: “Yes!”