Holiday shops are a well-loved tradition at many schools. In some cases, the event is used as a service project, allowing students to select holiday gifts for family members at low cost or for free. In others, it’s a fundraiser for the parent group, although gifts are still priced lower than at general retail outlets.

If you’re considering running a holiday shop event, the first decision is whether to do it yourself or contract with a service provider. Holiday shop companies provide items on consignment from a set catalog, as well as organizational help, sales materials, and a cash register or other means of pricing and collecting payment. (For more detailed holiday shop planning tips, including how to choose a vendor and a sample timeline, check out our ultimate School Holiday Shop Planning Guide.)

With a do-it-yourself school holiday shop, on the other hand, your parent group has full control of what is sold, along with full responsibility for figuring out the logistics. Many PTOs run their own holiday shops—and you can, too, as long as you go into it with your eyes open about both the benefits and the challenges. If you’re crunched for time or have trouble getting enough volunteers for large events, a do-it-yourself school holiday shop may be more stress than it’s worth. But if you have good organization, plenty of time, and a willing pool of volunteers, go for it! Here are the key areas to consider when doing a holiday shop program yourself.

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Planning and Organization

Start early. You’re more likely to have a successful event if you plan for it all year long. Brainstorm a list of gifts and gift types (such as household items, items that say “#1 Mom” or “Best Grandpa,” and items for pets). Allow your volunteer shoppers to add to the list—while they’re out purchasing inventory on the list, they may see other things that will spark new ideas.

Shopping will happen year-round, but particularly after the winter holidays; you can stock up for the following year’s event during post-Christmas clearance sales.

Communication is extremely important so that all shoppers know, for example, that enough pet gifts have been found but that gifts for dads need to be filled in.

Run through the following questions to kick off your do-it-yourself school holiday shop planning:

• What should we buy?
• Who will our shoppers be?
• How much should we spend?
• How much do we need?
• How much time do we have to look for gifts?
• How will we handle reimbursements?
• Where will we store everything before the event?
• Where will we store leftover supplies and gifts after the event?
• Will we be able to use excess inventory for anything else (school store, bingo prizes, etc.)?
• What will our range of base prices be (to break even)?
• Do we want to run this event as a fundraiser? If so, how much markup do we want to add?
• How will we identify gift trends and act on them?

Volunteers

Holiday shops tend to be a volunteer-intensive effort whether it’s a homegrown event or done with a service provider. For a do-it-yourself shop, you’ll need to plan for additional volunteers, additional hours spent, or both.

It starts with collecting inventory; recruit volunteers to hunt for bargains, purchase supplies, and store gifts. Depending on how you set up your shop, you may also need people to sort gifts into different price groups, tag individual items with the sale price, and put them into gift boxes. (See the next section for more on inventory.)

Dedicate some volunteer brain power to organizing the shopping experience. For example, will you provide homemade budget envelopes for students to shop with? What will you do if something breaks or sells out?

Buying and Pricing Inventory

Running your own school holiday shop gives you complete control over what to sell. You can make your stock limited or wide-ranging, sell inexpensive tchotchkes or high-quality tools and keepsakes.

Your group also bears the challenge of procuring all the inventory. Consider what kinds of gifts your students will want to buy, and put some thought into how many individual items to have on hand. Have a reimbursement process in place, and make sure all of your shoppers know how it works.

Reimbursement Request Form

You’ll need to purchase gifts at a low enough price point to benefit your group—and this will in turn be affected by whether you’re looking to hold a break-even service event or trying to earn a profit from a fundraising holiday shop. The prices you set will be directly related to the kinds of bargains you find while shopping; if you spend a lot on a group of individual items, you won’t be able to price them as low for students when you sell them.

Some school holiday shop inventory tips:

Shop year-round. Recruit a core crew of volunteers to be on the lookout at all times. Be ready to shop the post-Christmas sales and other key clearance times.

Plan early. Good organization and lots of communication with your team are both extremely important so you don’t end up with too many of one type of gift and not enough of another (or with gifts that aren’t good enough to resell in your shop). Be clear about what the plans and intentions are for your holiday shop and whether there’s a price limit for buying inventory.

Buy enough gifts. A good rule of thumb is five gifts per student, but if it’s your first time doing a holiday shop, consider surveying families to see what price points they’d support and how many family members they would want their child to shop for. Some groups stock as many as 12 items per student.

Ask kids what they want to buy. With a holiday shop, you’re better off stocking up on what appeals to the students rather than what appeals to adults—and those answers may change year to year, if not more often. Some frequent favorites include ice scrapers, fuzzy socks and blankets, flashlights, pet toys, stickers, stress balls, keychains, mugs, and tool sets.

Storage

Consider your storage options both before the holiday shop and after. It’s also helpful to have access to a space where you can spread out your inventory to make it easier to sort and price.

Your gift items should be contained in sturdy bins or containers to make it easier to move them around before setup. The same bins can be used for leftover inventory after the shop is over. You’ll also need a safe, secure, dry place at school to store the bins.

Extra items can be used as prizes (bingo night, carnivals, etc.) or as stock for a school store. If these are projects your group does, you’ll gain extra benefit from planning for them while you’re shopping for your holiday store—and from storing items in a way that keeps them accessible before the next year’s holiday shop event.

Students in Need

Many holiday shop companies offer incentives such as shopping vouchers, and parent groups often put the value of these incentives toward students who might otherwise not be able to afford to shop. If you’re doing a holiday shop on your own, and especially if it’s planned as a fundraiser, make sure to account for your school’s underprivileged students in your budgeting of expenses and expected revenue. Another option is to coordinate with the principal, who may be able to kick in a set amount per student from a discretionary fund.

More School Holiday Shop Resources

Holiday Shop How-To

Holiday Shops File Exchange

School Holiday Shop Planning Guide

Tips From Our Facebook Community

We collect all year and shop clearance sales. Donations are another way we fill up our holiday sale. We put a list out of suggested items and parents and some of our church families donate new or slightly used items they have around the house. —Louise D.

We buy gift tags and send them home telling them to label who they are buying for. We wrap everything before the shop except for one of each item so they can see what they are buying. Each child is allowed to buy five gifts. —Melissa N.

Be ready with at least five items per student total and make at least half of them gender-neutral (flashlights, umbrellas, ear warmers, car ice scrapers, etc.). —Heather B.

Extra inventory gets carried over to next year or used for bingo prizes. I have about 10 moms that just keep an eye out all year long while out shopping. —Bianca M.

We made several items using the crafty people on the board. Think of painted wine bottles with vinyl, bracelets, necklaces, keychains, scarves, etc. It’s not for everyone due to the effort and organization involved; however, I can tell you that everyone loved the items and the parents would comment on the great quality for the price. —Stephanie B.

We ration our goodies per class. If we have 60 of a particular item, we can put out two per shopping session (we have 30 classes). This allows for all kiddos to have a chance to buy “the good stuff” in every class instead of a class or two wiping us out. —Sarah L.

A few weeks before our Santa’s workshop, we divide items evenly into boxes labeled with day of the week and category....Each day these go under the tables, and the rest of the stuff we leave in the back area. —Janet R.

We will just hold onto anything that doesn’t sell until next year. I try to never buy anything that has a year on it. —Megan I.