Cheap Kids' Clothes

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Walmart Review

Walmart is the clear winner in the price comparison, with the lowest total for back-to-school clothes: $166.66. The selection isn't particularly on-trend, but Walmart shoppers are fans of the cheap, long-lasting uniforms, as well as the jeans, which stand up to busy school days as well as more expensive brands.

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Old Navy Review

Old Navy prices are middle-of-the-pack ($274.13 total), but this retailer is a top choice for on-trend items that last until kids grow out of them. Affordable basics such as khakis and polos in an array of colors make the grade for school uniforms or everyday wear. Online, coupon codes are frequent and return shipping is free.

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Target Review

Target keeps up on trends, with stylish looks from in-house brand Cherokee. The total was third-cheapest out of seven, at $235.77. The in-store selection featured school uniforms displayed at the front. Online, a $25 threshold for free shipping is lowest among all the stores and a promotion waives the fee for back-to-school.

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Kohl's Review

The total of $348.72 (including sale prices) was more than twice as high as the bill at Walmart, the cheapest store, but the Kohl's store card and other promotions can slash that number. Kohl's is known for quality items unlikely to rip or fall apart prematurely and carries stylish clothes that should appeal to young fashion plates.

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Kmart Review

Kmart came in second only to Walmart on price, with a total of $192.71. It was the cheapest source for shorts and girls' uniforms, among other items. The return policy requires a receipt for any refund or exchange, however. Kmart locations are dwindling, which makes the store less likely to be a convenient stop.

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JC Penney Review

JC Penney carries a large selection of basics and trendier pieces, and store brand Arizona earns high marks for being well made. Even with discounts on nearly every item, the total came to $301.82, the second-highest. Be aware that the retailer has been accused of pumping up "regular" prices to make sales look better.

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Sears Review

The selection at Sears includes everything back-to-school shoppers are likely to need, and most items were marked down. Still, our list rang up at a relatively high total of $290.69 and not a single item was cheapest at Sears. The return window is also the shortest: 30 days, compared with 90 at most other stores.

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Buying Guide

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, hit the stores in search of cheap school clothes for children 7 to 10 years old (a sweet spot between toddler clothing and preteen fashion). We surveyed prices at JC Penney, Kohl's, Old Navy, Sears, Target, and Walmart stores in southern Connecticut. Kmart also advertises low prices on kids' clothes but does not have a store in that market, so prices were pulled from the Kmart website.

Cheap Kids' Clothes

Raechel Conover contributed to this report.

We shopped for a long list of back-to-school clothes from each retailer to compare the total cost of outfitting two children, a boy and a girl, with one of each item (see chart). Walmart emerged the cheapest source for kids' clothing overall, a title it has held since our first foray into the stores in 2011. The retailer's total in 2015: $166.66 (before tax). Kohl's is consistently the most expensive store from year to year. In our 2015 shopping expedition, the total came to $348.72 -- more than twice as much as the same haul at Walmart. The amount includes Kohl's ubiquitous sale prices, although not its exceptional coupons for card members and other savings that can drastically reduce the amount shoppers pay at the cash register.

Although Walmart is the clear winner on price overall, selection, quality, and store policies also influenced our recommendations. And no store is truly a one-stop shop for cheap back-to-school clothes; different stores excel in different clothing categories (see chart). For instance, Old Navy is the cheapest source for boys' uniform and dress pants. The store also carries polo shirts in a large array of colors, along with uniform-worthy sweaters and cardigans. Kmart posted the lowest prices for almost half the items on our list. On the other hand, the priciest girls' hoodie came from Kmart; jeans and dress pants were also among the most expensive. A relatively strict return policy, a dwindling number of locations, and a perception of low quality further dull the luster of Kmart's low prices.

Our back-to-school shopping list comprised uniform shirts, pants, and skirts; shorts, jeans, T-shirts, and hoodies; khakis, polo shirts, and button-down shirts for boys; and dresses, skirts, and fashion tops for girls. Although our calculations include only one of each item, children likely will need more of certain items and may have some categories covered already. A Scholastic shopping guide recommends three to five pairs of pants, six to 10 shirts, two to three sweatshirts, and a matching skirt and top combination for girls. Children also need coats for fall, winter, and rainy weather, but many stores don't put kids' outerwear on the racks until a little later in the season. For the dos and don'ts of back-to-school shoe shopping, keep an eye on our blog.

What We Looked For

Large Selection.

With the exception of Old Navy, the stores in this comparison carry a number of kids' clothing brands. In most cases the cheapest option is a proprietary label. Target has the Cherokee brand, Kmart has Basic Editions, Walmart has Faded Glory, JC Penney carries the Arizona brand, and Sears offers shoppers its Canyon River Blues brand. At Kohl's, the Chaps brand from Polo Ralph Lauren seems to offer the largest selection of cheap kids' clothes, specifically uniforms (polo shirts, khakis, and blouses can also be wardrobe basics for non-uniformed students).

Old Navy was the only store we visited that had everything on our shopping list in stock. All the missing items at the other stores were available online, however, so we included them in the price survey to account for the fact that different locations carry different items. Just about everything available in stores can also be found online, with free shipping for purchases that exceed a threshold ranging from $25 at Target to $99 at JC Penney. (A back-to-school promotion at Target offers free shipping and returns through Aug. 15, 2015.) In many cases the selection is larger on the web. Grandmother Peggie Dennehy points to the husky sizes available online at Walmart, which fit her grandson better than the school uniforms from other stores.

One problem with shopping for school clothes online is that children can't try on the clothes before purchase. Kids grow so fast that there's just no other way to know their sizes from year to year. However, all the retailers listed here let online shoppers return most unwanted merchandise to a bricks-and-mortar store. Parents can take advantage of the large selection online and head to the mall only if items don't fit. Just be sure to check the return policies (see below). Old Navy stands out for offering free return shipping for online purchases.

Sales and Coupons.

Back-to-school is a busy time for discounting. The sales were just beginning when we shopped in mid-July, and early deals seemed to center on school uniforms: $6 polo shirts at Old Navy (down from $9.94) and 40 percent off boys' Oxford shirts at JC Penney. We also spotted rollbacks on boys' shirts at Walmart and dresses at JC Penney.

Although sales vary from week to week this time of year, ignoring sale prices would paint an inaccurate picture of how much consumers can expect to pay at each store. Discounting is integral to some retailers' pricing strategies -- so much so that class action lawsuits have been filed against Kohl's and JC Penney alleging that merchandise labeled as a markdown never sold for the "original price" listed on the tag. Whether or not sale prices are included, the ranking in our price survey remains the same: Walmart is cheapest, followed by Kmart, Target, Old Navy, Sears, JC Penney, and Kohl's.

We were hard-pressed to find anyone shopping at Kohl's who doesn't take advantage of coupons and other money-saving opportunities, such as Kohl's Cash promotions. The retailer constantly sends Kohl's card holders coupons for 10, 20, and 30 percent off -- and if no coupons have been sent out, the store typically allows 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 pays low prices because she always has a coupon; one time she forgot the coupon and the store honored it anyway, she said.

Old Navy often runs online deals that garner bigger discounts than buying the same items in store. An online-only offer at the end of July took 35 percent off an Old Navy purchase with a coupon code. Such discounts are often steeper for Old Navy card holders, who also get free shipping with no minimum purchase. Unlike JC Penney, Kohl's, and Sears, which seem to put nearly everything "on sale," Old Navy sets low prices to begin with.

Generous Return Policy.

Many parents, especially those with young children, prefer to shop for clothes without bringing the kids along. In that case, it certainly pays to know the return policy before buying a bundle.

Kohl's outshines the rest with a truly hassle-free return policy. Shoppers can return anything to Kohl's at any time for a refund or exchange with a receipt, even if -- gasp -- the tags are missing. Customer service can also look up credit card transactions in the computer system and issue a full refund or exchange without a receipt. If a transaction record can't be found, Kohl's grants store credit or an even exchange for the current retail price of the item as long as the tags are still on.

Sears has the shortest return window: 30 days for most items, along with the receipt. Old Navy follows at 45 days. All the other stores we reviewed have a 90-day limit for a return with a receipt. After the window has closed, Target and JC Penney offer store credit for the lowest in-store price of the returned item. Kmart and Walmart do not allow any type of return after 90 days. Kmart is especially strict -- customers must have an original receipt, or a return will not be accepted. Other stores offer to look up the transaction if the customer paid with a credit or debit card.

At Target, unworn clothing can be exchanged for another size or color anytime, and customers have a year to return Target's private label clothing brands (including C9 by Champion, Cherokee, Circo, and Xhilaration) with a receipt.

Kids' Clothing Reviews

Frugal shoppers with fast-growing kids may pay more attention to price than quality, but they also want clothes that won't need replacing before the school year is out. Assessments of quality are subjective and variable -- a garment that lasts on one child may get ripped to shreds by a very active kid. That said, we did speak to other shoppers and seek out kids' clothes reviews online. We also looked closely at the clothing in each store when conducting our price survey. The style website Into Mind offers a beginner's cheat sheet with tips for assessing the quality of garments. For instance, watch out for crooked seams and loose threads, and test zippers to be sure they zip smoothly.

A 2009 Good Housekeeping test provides some insight into the quality of the kids' clothes sold by six of our seven retailers (Kohl's was not included). The experts tested items for fabric strength, shrinkage, and color fading and bleeding, providing a base line for each brand's standard of quality, although fabrics and manufacturing processes may have changed. JC Penney's Arizona brand T-shirts for boys, made from strong material that resists shrinkage, performed best out of 15 contestants. However, girls' T-shirts shrank in the test and appeared prone to fraying. Target's Cherokee brand shirts were also made with strong fabric that barely faded in the wash. Again, though, the quality of the girls' T-shirts was a little lower, and girls' jeans didn't stand up to washing, wear, and tear. Old Navy impressed Good Housekeeping with the sturdiness of its polo shirts and girls' jeans. Girls' jeans from Walmart -- the cheapest in our survey -- outperformed a more expensive kids' clothing brand, but watch out for shrinking with the store's super-cheap Faded Glory T-shirts. The testing suggests that Kmart is another source of durable jeans, although some parents told us they've seen otherwise. Finally, testers singled out Sears' Canyon River Blues T-shirts for their reinforced stitching.

We connected with a number of parents via Facebook to get their assessments of the cheap kids' clothing they've purchased from these stores. Shoppers' opinions vary when it comes to quality and durability. Most parents say once they find something that works for their children, they stick with it. Anne Devin has been buying her son jeans from JC Penney for a few years because they've stood the test of time. Jessica Frey noted the quality of the Kohl's pants she's purchased for her 8-and-a-half-year-old son. More than a few parents tout Old Navy as a top choice, because it combines cheap prices with trendy styles and durability. Corrine Lazzara turns to Walmart to build easy and inexpensive uniform wardrobes for all her kids. No shoppers mentioned Kmart as a store of choice.