Price Survey: The Best Stores for School Clothes

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Nine out of 10 parents are planning to buy their kids new clothes for the upcoming school year, according to a National Retail Federation survey. The average expected outlay: $235.10. Where should families shop to stay on budget? compared prices on kids' clothes at seven popular stores: JC Penney, Kmart, Kohl's, Old Navy, Sears, Target, and Walmart. Factors such as selection and return policies also helped determine the best stores for back-to-school shopping on the cheap. Here's what consumers should know before outfitting their kids.

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CHEAPEST OVERALL surveyed prices in mid-July on 10 items for boys and 10 items for girls in elementary school. The shopping list of shirts, pants, shorts, dress clothes, and school uniforms rang up cheapest at Walmart: $166.66 (pre-tax). Walmart offered the lowest prices of any store on nearly half the items.

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Retailers started to list back-to-school deals not long after Fourth of July fireworks fizzled out. Although the discounts continually change this time of year, sales are so integral to some of the stores' pricing that they were included in Cheapism's survey. The ranking remains the same with or without sale prices (starting with the cheapest): Walmart, Kmart, Target, Old Navy, Sears, JC Penney, and Kohl's.

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Parents may be able to save time and money by leaving kids at home but must pay attention to return policies when growing children aren't there to try on clothes. Kohl's stands out for letting customers bring back items anytime, no receipt required. Target earns honorable mention for allowing a year for returns and exchanges of store-brand clothing (with a receipt).

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Target is offering free shipping and free returns through Aug. 15; the regular threshold for free shipping is $25, the lowest among the seven stores in Cheapism's survey. Online returns are free at Old Navy, as well. The other stores charge for return shipping, so shoppers' best bet is to return online purchases in-store to avoid a fee.

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In recent years Old Navy has taken a more fashion-forward approach than competitors. It's become known for on-trend looks that cost relatively little. At the same time, parents report that the clothes stand up to the abuse that active kids can inflict on their wardrobes.

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The cheapest boys' jeans of the bunch were Target's Cherokee brand, at $9.99, compared with up to $23 on sale elsewhere. For girls, Walmart undercut the rest by a wide margin, asking $6.92 for its Faded Glory jeans.

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The prices on other basic components of a boy's wardrobe were lowest at Old Navy and Walmart. The former put khaki pants on sale for $10 and the latter sold $5 polo shirts and $6 hoodies. These items are cheap enough that they can easily be replaced after a growth spurt or a particularly rowdy day.

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Girls' fashions change a little faster than boys'. Parents can count on finding stylish pieces at low prices at Old Navy and Target. For the cheapest options, though, Walmart is the place. The retail giant posted the lowest prices on T-shirts, fashion tops, hoodies, dresses, and leggings, as well as jeans.

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Stock up on uniform essentials at Walmart, Kmart, or Old Navy. Kmart had the lowest prices on uniforms for girls. Old Navy sold the cheapest uniform pants for boys and polo-style shirts in a huge array of shades. Online shoppers can search uniforms by color.

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Every kid needs a couple of dress-up items that go beyond school and play clothes. Look to Old Navy for the cheapest button-down shirts and dress pants for boys. Walmart carries dresses for under $10, although the styles are somewhat plain. At a sale price of $15, Kohl's dresses may have greater appeal.

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In addition to discounts on individual items, keep an eye out for promotions that reduce the cost of an entire purchase. At Kohl's, for instance, customers can claim $10 off kids' clothing purchases of $30 or more through Aug. 19 (online, use the promo code BTSKIDS10).