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School lessons at the local store

As school budgets shrink, schools are taking advantage of company-sponsored field trips. Some academics worry that the trend is another example of advertising infiltrating schools. By’s Sean Alfano.
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With the school year fast approaching, Cindy Silver has been busy designing a field trip. She wants schoolchildren to tour a supermarket and sample foods such as organic raisins and grilled chicken to learn the ingredients of a healthy, balanced meal. She calls this “her best idea yet.” Though heavily invested in the project, Silver is not a teacher by trade. A registered dietician, she is the corporate nutritionist for Lowe’s Foods and helps oversee the North Carolina-based company’s “Be a Smart Shopper” program, provided free to elementary schools.

As school budgets shrink and money for special events disappears, more and more schools are turning to businesses as destinations for field trips. Companies such as Toys “R” Us, The Sports Authority, Pearle Vision and Petco are opening their doors to schools, giving children lessons about budgeting, fitness, eye care and animals. For teachers and school administrators, these trips provide inexpensive, educational experiences outside of the classroom.

Others, however, say the trend is one more example of corporate advertising infiltrating schools and unduly influencing children.

“My kids were thrilled when they went to the grocery store,” Deb Weber, a second-grade teacher in Channahon, Ill., 50 miles southwest of Chicago, says of her class trip to a local supermarket. Weber says, “The kids like it, the parents like it, it’s free and it’s close. What more can you ask for?”

Though companies often hand students coupons after field trips to promote future visits, Weber sees the visits as beneficial. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s an educational field trip,” says Weber, who has taken her second-graders to Petco and PetsMart stores. Asked if she thought that the coupons were an attempt to exploit the children, she said: “I look at it as a freebie. Parents and kids are free to throw those in the trash.”

Mixed feelings about trend
Opponents of marketing products in schools as a way to raise money are not entirely comfortable with the idea of company-sponsored field trips. But they are not outraged by them the way they are by corporate logos plastered on school hallways or vending machines filled with junk food and sodas in cafeterias.

“You have to take into consideration the trade-offs,” says Daniel Allen, a researcher for Arizona State University’s Commercialism in Education Research Unit. “We have an ideological view that this shouldn’t be happening,” he says, “but in the real world, schools are faced with difficult decisions.”

On the downside, Allen says, “These little kids are very impressionable. It seems harmless, but these corporations understand that they’re creating loyalty from the cradle to the grave.”

Daniel Fuller of the National School Boards Association defends the field trips, saying that teachers and parents help plan them. “It’s easy to tell people what you can’t do, but schools don’t have the option of not educating kids,” he says.

The business of field trips
Regardless of the debate, it is clear that marketing to children is big business.

James McNeal, a retired marketing professor from Texas A&M University who runs the consulting firm McNeal and Kids, says children ages 5 through 12 spent nearly $200 billion of their own money on products such as snack food and toys last year.

Moreover, children influence over $400 billion in spending by their parents and peers. “When you total those up,” McNeal says, “that gives children more market potential than any other demographic.”

“These field trips, when done right, truly please the kids, the teachers and the parents,” says McNeal, who has studied the relationship between advertisers and children since 1962.

But he still is not wholly supportive of the concept. “I’ve seen so much bad marketing,” in the form of exaggerations, “so I won’t take sides,” he says.

Courting future customers
Nancy Costopulos, senior director of marketing and sales for the American Marketing Association is blunt about what companies are doing: “Schools are trying to do more things with less money and corporations are happy to step in to get customers for the future.”

With this in mind, the Field Trip Factory coordinates school tours for companies. “We’re like a one-stop shop for free field trips in your community,” says Susan Singer, president and founder of the Chicago-based firm. True to its name, the company has organized field trips for more than 600,000 children in 44 states in the past 10 years, according to the firm’s Web site.

Singer says her company ensures the trips are educational by working with teachers and experts like Cindy Silver at Lowe’s Foods to compose scripts that tour guides use to lead discussions with students that complement their work in the classroom.

Silver says the approach is very effective: “I consider a supermarket the very best nutrition classroom there is.”

Learning at a toy store?
Though learning about nutrition at the supermarket makes sense, the educational benefits of a field trip to Toys “R” Us are less obvious. Deb Weber doubted she would go to Toys “R” Us. “I don’t know what they would teach the children,” she says.

But Michael Rubin, director of new business for the toy company, defended its field trips, called “Mighty Minds,” which are now being offered at four stores in largely rural areas: Fond du Lac, Wis.; Meridian, Miss.; Abilene, Texas; and Jacksonville, N.C.

“These are not places with a hundred museums,” Rubin says. “We’re providing a destination that didn’t exist before to provide an out-of-classroom experience.”

As part of the field trip, students must plan a party, an activity that revolves around budgeting and organizing time. As the children tour the store, they receive clues to help them with their work, and to solve a riddle about the theme of the field trip.

“The answer is always about the brain, which is a nice tie-in because we are learning about how people think,” says Rubin, underscoring what Toys “R” Us hopes to gain from the field trip — marketing insights and new business.