Parent groups share creative ideas that have made their seasonal stores a hit year after year.

by Patti Ghezzi


On a crisp Saturday morning every December, the gymnasium at Three Rivers School in Channahon, Ill., becomes a kids’ shopping paradise. Every item is $2, allowing students from the district’s elementary schools to buy gifts for everyone on their list—even pets.

“The kids love it,” says Cheri Petersen, president of the Channahon School District 17 PTO. “They come in with their little lists and just go to town.”

There are as many ways to run a holiday shop as there are items to emblazon with an apple and call a teacher’s gift. Whether your shop is a fundraiser or a community service, these top tips from PTO leaders will make your seasonal shop a success.

Don’t blow the surprise! The Channahon shop at Three Rivers is a parent-free zone. Teachers volunteer to work the register and wrap gifts while moms and dads are sequestered in the commons area. PTOs at other schools keep parents at bay by scheduling volunteers for times when their children’s classes are not shopping.

Providing gift bags can help maintain the element of surprise. As an added security measure, some groups staple the bag shut to keep curious younger brothers and sisters from reaching inside.

Maximize the event: The Channahon PTO rents vending space in the commons area to educational toy companies. This brings in $2,000 and gives parents a chance to tackle their own lists while their kids shop. Some schools add a health fair or other family services.

Mehoopany Elementary PTO in Pennsylvania turned its simple holiday shop into an extravaganza with student performances, a pancake breakfast, and a chance for kids to have their pictures taken with Santa Claus. “In our lobby was a beautifully decorated Christmas tree adorned with ornaments the schoolchildren created in art class,” president Brenda Mills says. “This tree created a stunning backdrop for our photos with Santa.”

Know your students: Some schools stock items up to $15 or $20. For others, $5 may be the most parents want their children spending per gift. Some schools will need to stock gifts for Hanukkah and other winter holidays, while others can focus more on Christmas. It’s important to find out what arrangement will suit your students best.

“We have a lot of kids who want to buy for their dogs and their cats,” says Sheri Hernan, last year’s PTA president at Watson Elementary in Austintown, Ohio, which has a longstanding holiday store tradition. The PTA hired a holiday shop company that provides merchandise on consignment, a popular strategy; Hernan made sure plenty of pet gifts were available.

Think like a child: Most dads don’t need another coffee mug, but children love buying their fathers gifts that say “I Love Dad.” Stock your shop with gifts that will appeal to children, not necessarily the recipients. Tacky is OK. Kids gravitate toward colorful gifts.

Stock plenty of inexpensive gifts even if your community is affluent. Most young children don’t know the difference between a $2 item and a $10 item, Hernan says. They like the idea of getting a lot of stuff and having money left over to buy something for themselves.

Plan early: PTO leaders universally praise holiday shops as a magnet for willing volunteers. Parents love to interact with children and see the smiles on their faces. Still, it helps to start planning during the summer or, at the latest, as soon as the school year starts.

Decide how many days the shop will be open for business. Claim dates that don’t conflict with standardized testing or holiday performances. Next, figure out whether to ask parents to supply merchandise or to enlist a company that provides gifts on consignment. You can do it yourself; the Channahon PTO purchases 3,000 items from dollar stores for its annual sale. But it’s a significant organizational task, and merchandise is acquired over several months. Most groups use a holiday shop company. In addition to items to sell on consignment, the companies typically provide forms, organizational and planning advice, and a cash register. At some schools where holiday shops are established traditions, the event got started when a parent took the initiative to call companies and request catalogs.

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

Some schools wait until November to place their orders. But an early start is key to avoiding volunteer burnout. “Be organized,” Hernan says. “For us, we’ve been doing it for so long, it’s habit.”

Know your parents: The Wallace Elementary PTO in Kelso, Wash., runs its holiday store, with help from a holiday shop company, for two weeks instead of just one or two days. “Everybody’s paycheck falls on different days and weeks,” says PTO vice president Michelle Stimson. “It turned out to be a huge success.”

Alternatively, some PTOs may be comfortable letting parents send in blank checks to cover the cost of their child’s gifts. Others might accept cash only. Some communities love a blow-out Christmas celebration, while others may opt for a religiously neutral “winter wonderland” theme.

Assign each child a helper: Holiday shops all operate a little differently, but the practice often cited as the linchpin to a successful event is making sure each student has a shopping guide. This is usually a parent volunteer or a teacher, although some groups even enlist middle or high school students to serve as helpers.

“Parents send cash or a check along with a list of whom the child is supposed to shop for,” explains Bridgette Wimberly, president of the Carmen Dragon Elementary PTA in Antioch, Calif. The parent helper makes sure the child sticks to the list and stays on budget.

Children frequently want to buy a couple of items for themselves, but some may need reminding of the gift shop’s purpose. The helper can also make discreet arrangements if a child does not have money to buy gifts.

Secure your merchandise: At Carmen Dragon, the PTA didn’t plan the holiday shop as a fundraiser. But parents marked up merchandise 5 percent to cover inevitable theft. “Last year, we had our shop on the stage,” Wimberly says. It opened at 8:30 a.m., but kids came in earlier to eat breakfast, creating a chaotic environment. Parents learned their lesson: “Make sure it’s a secure location,” she says.

No matter how much parents love their students and their community, it’s important to be realistic about how easily kids can be tempted. The most successful safeguard against theft is adequate supervision. Structure the event so there aren’t more children in the store than volunteers can manage.

Enjoy it! Holiday shops can be hectic, but parent group leaders say they are regarded as one of the year’s most fun events. “Don’t stress out,” Wimberly advises. “There are going to be stressful moments, but you are in control of the store. The kids, they’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about the holidays. They’re having fun.”

Holiday Shop Favorites

Jewelry: A top seller for moms, grandmothers, and big sisters.
Stickers: Affordable and perfect for siblings.
Plaques: Popular for all family members as well as teachers.
Mugs: Everybody can use one more, right?
Notepads: Especially in fun shapes like dogs, cats, hearts, or flowers.


# carla salyers 2010-09-21 04:53
Looking to set up a Winter Wonderland Faire at our school in conjunction with our holiday shop. Do you have any more information on the vendor booths, sample contracts, requirements, etc. We too plan on having concessions, perhaps a nominal admission fee, this is about networking parents in our school community who have home based business while bring fundraising as well.
# Alyssa 2012-09-24 02:31
We do the same idea but for Mother's Day, our Mother's Day Bazaar has been a staple at our school for over 40 years!
# Craig Bystrynski 2012-09-24 13:38
Alyssa -- Great idea!

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