What kind of parent group program takes a lot of work, often yields little monetary reward, yet easily attracts volunteers? In many schools, it’s the annual holiday shop.

Although Christmas pageants and breakfast with Santa events have pretty much fallen by the wayside as schools have become more sensitive to religious and cultural differences, holiday shops that celebrate the spirit of giving are as popular as ever. And while the setup, volunteer recruitment, and paperwork involved in running a holiday shop can rival that of the school fair, the committee chairpeople we interviewed say that watching children select gifts for others so delights them that they’re willing to put up with the intense amount of work the shops take.

Getting Professional Help

For as far back as anyone can remember, volunteers at Miscoe Elementary in Mendon, Mass., met every week year-round to make crafts for kids to buy for their families at holiday time. But when the school was regionalized and doubled in size, the committee was daunted by the task of creating twice as many crafts, and the tradition died, says Ann Farrell, outgoing PTO president.

After a year without the program, Farrell looked into professional holiday shops and ran one last year with great success. “I was surprised it was so nice. It was like when we were kids and went to Woolworth to buy little things,” she says.

There are many vendors who run holiday shops; the details of their programs vary slightly, though the basic concept is the same. Schools order merchandise on consignment. No money goes to the vendor until the shop is over, and schools only pay for what is sold. Though parent groups are free to mark up the items (which are priced from about 15 cents to $10 with the bulk costing less than $3), most run the program as a service to children, not as a fundraiser.

Items run the gamut from plastic pens and key rings often purchased for siblings to gleaming tool kits and “I Love Mom” mugs for parents. “Coffee mugs are forever,” says Kurt Koehler, owner of Gifts ’N’ Things, whose holiday shop is called The Lil’ Shopper’s Shop.

Generally, the vendor codes the prices so volunteers don’t have to memorize them and checkout runs smoothly. Some schools use the cash register many holiday shops provide for free. Prices can be keyed into it ahead of time so transactions go quickly and tallying is easier. In other schools, the volunteers prefer to transact and tally by hand because that way they can have more than one checkout station.

Most vendors send the committee chair a packet including tips for a successful event, as well as promotional materials, bags, tablecloths, and signage. The event usually takes a week, with one day to set up, three days to shop, and one day to pack up. Students visit the shop in small groups, and parent volunteers help them make their purchases.

Stocking Your Shop

Although holiday shop vendors’ merchandise procedures differ slightly, one thing everyone agrees on is that you can’t predict what will be hot sellers from year to year or from school to school. To avoid sellouts, vendors work closely with the committee chair to select amounts and will send a school more of an item that was popular the year before. But “if I could predict what a 10-year-old wants to buy, I’d be retired by now,” says Bill Sheehan, owner of KidSmart Holiday Shops in Carlisle, Pa.

What often happens is the “Madonna-wannabe effect,” as Mike Mardo, co-owner of Kids Go Shopping (another Pennsylvania-based outfit), puts it. One trendsetting child selects an item and suddenly everybody wants it. They sell out in 15 minutes, and the committee chair makes a frantic call to the vendor.

Holiday shop how-to! Choosing a vendor, getting organized, and lots of promotional tools

No problem. Most holiday shops overnight more merchandise nationwide, and it’s there by 10 the next morning. Experienced holiday shops consider this part of the service and volunteers we talked to said they found the overnight service helpful. Still, Don Fisher, owner of Kids Korner Gift Shoppes and a longtime PTA volunteer, makes two recommendations he says will save everyone a lot of headaches and heartaches. First, choose a vendor who’s geographically close to your school for better service. “We’re in Seattle, and there’s no way I can give the same service to a Miami school as a more local one,” he says.

He also recommends that schools run their holiday shops like a going-out-of-business sale: “Don’t put the last item on the shelf and take orders for it. When they’re gone, they should be gone.” It’s easier on the kids than having them hope the item will come in the next day, he says. Ordering and delivering backorders also adds even more steps to the volunteers’ job description.

The Holiday Spirit

Another tricky issue with holiday shops is what happens when kids don’t have enough money for their purchases or can’t afford to shop at all. The spirit of giving usually solves those problems.

PTOs, often with the help of shop vendors, come up with creative ways to allow kids with no money to shop. Many vendors give schools a “sign-up bonus” for early booking or gift certificates based on how many items they order. Sometimes schools will use the credits to offset any of their costs, but usually the points or cash go into a fund to help out needy students.

Debi Dahlinger of Asa Packer Elementary in Bethlehem, Pa., says her school provides one or two shopping gift certificates for each classroom as needed. Then the teacher holds a drawing, and the child who needs the certificate the most “just happens to win.”

Planning Your Program

Although holiday shops take a lot of work, vendors and committee chairs say the keys to success are planning ahead and having enough volunteers. Holiday shops can be booked as late as October, but vendors agree that September is the ideal deadline—and experienced schools make their plans by the end of June. “The schools that are the most successful are the ones that have planned this out for months,” says Mike Mardo. “You can’t just wake up one morning and say ‘Hey, let’s put on a holiday shop’ and have it run smoothly.”

You also need to line up enough volunteers to staff the checkout and help kids shop. Most volunteers and vendors say three to five adults per shopping session is ideal on average, but the younger the kids, the more volunteers you need because little ones are easily overwhelmed and indecisive.

But like any parent group program, you know what works best for your volunteer population. Tonia Wormley-Evans, a PTA volunteer at the Woodmore School in Baltimore, is on her third KidSmart holiday shop and says it was a breeze with just two adults helping each day. “I didn’t want too many people. Sometimes that’s harder to control,” she says.

Merry Whatever

Then there’s the political correctness issue. Some schools may worry that a holiday shop–often called a Santa shop or elf shop in the trade–will smack too much of Christmas. Not so, say vendors, who report that their business has grown in recent years even as other holiday-oriented school events have diminished. “Our Web address is santashop.org, but that’s just because it’s easy to remember,” says Kurt Koehler, whose father started the business in 1976. “Nothing Christmasy goes into the schools.”

Vendors and volunteers agree that while parents are concerned about this issue, children are not. “Feliz Navidad” mugs and dreidels, if they’re available, sit on the shelf while kids snap up stuffed animals and jewelry.

Most public school groups shun obvious religious items. “We try to avoid putting crosses or other religious symbols in the mix,” says Don Fisher, not because the kids get offended but to avert the situation where a Jewish child brings home a sparkly crystal cross.

That happened to Mike Mardo’s godson, Craig, who is now in college. Craig is Jewish, but his last name, Bishop, caused well-meaning but oblivious holiday shop volunteers to steer him toward buying a cross for his mother when he was a child.

“‘Oh, Craig, she’ll love it,’ they told him,” recalls Mardo, laughing.

Although she was taken aback, Mrs. Bishop did love it because it was a gift from her child. And while the story is now a source of family amusement, Mardo says, “She still has that cross, to this day.”

Inside the Asa Packer Holiday Shop

Asa Packer Elementary in Bethlehem, Pa., has run a holiday shop for more than 10 years, the last four with Gifts ’N’ Things. As chairwoman for about half that time, Debi Dahlinger not only knows the drill but has also added a few twists of her own.

Dahlinger admits that the program is the most difficult one she’s done, mostly because it’s so time-consuming with all the paperwork involved, plus packing and unpacking merchandise. She also has to recruit 20 to 25 volunteers to set up and break down and to help the children shop, but that’s not hard, she says. “The parents love to do it,” she says, because they enjoy watching the kids’ eyes light up as they buy presents, especially for their teachers.

Although Gifts ’N’ Things provides a letter to send home to parents explaining the program, Dahlinger writes her own. In it she stresses that the holidays are a time of giving, so children should not shop for themselves.

But they may shop for anyone else, including pets. A while back, Dahlinger noticed that the students snapped up presents for their pooches, so last year she bought giant-size Milk-Bone dog biscuits, tied each with a bow, and put them out at 25 cents each. They sold like crazy.

Always looking for a new angle, Dahlinger says, “This year I’m trying to think up something for cats.”