Published on


The Boston Globe

Coming to a classroom near you: brand-name field trips.

A Chicago-based company is putting a new twist on the traditional class outing by offering schools free visits to such places as a Shaw’s supermarket, a Sports Authority outlet, or a Petco store.

The destinations may seem odd, given the usual field trip circuit of farms, orchards, museums, and plays. But Susan Singer, owner of the Field Trip Factory, says it makes sense to turn retail stores into experiential learning centers for children.

“We believe very strongly that we are empowering children to make good choices,” Singer said, pointing to internal research indicating students tend to brush more, eat better, or increase their exercise after going on one of the company’s field trips.

Singer’s 12-employee business, with the stated goal of “uniting commerce, communities, and classrooms,” is growing fast. She said her company ran 6,000 field trips last year in 48 states and, with minimal promotion, expects to do 10,000 this year and 30,000 next year. She is busy expanding her roster of corporate sponsors, experimenting with field trips to banks, hospitals, restaurants, auto dealerships, and toy stores.

Singer declined to release her company’s financial numbers but said Field Trip Factory turns a relatively small profit by overseeing field trips for its corporate clients. The company solicits youth and school groups up through eighth grade, trains store employees as tour guides, and writes the scripts used by the guides.

The Field Trip Factory says it is trying to turn students into smarter consumers while offering cash-strapped schools and parents an inexpensive way to provide out-of-the-classroom learning experiences. Corporations appear to be enthralled by the concept, but critics see the company’s growth as another sign of creeping commercialization in American classrooms.

“It’s corporations teaching children commercial values,” said Jamie Court, the author of “Corporateering: How Corporate Power Steals Your Personal Freedom and What You Can Do About It.” Said Court: “Children shouldn’t see supermarkets as a safe place to trust. The whole setup of a supermarket is designed to hook people on buying.”

Singer bristles at the suggestion her company is serving children up for corporate marketing purposes.

She said teachers wouldn’t bother with the field trips if they didn’t have educational value and applauded corporations for trying to help children make better choices.

“This is a way to do good by doing good,” she said.

There was a blend of commercial and educational messages last week as 17 kindergartners from the Parkview Elementary School in Easton filed into the town’s Shaw’s Supermarket for a field trip.

There were no blatant product plugs or put-downs of the competition, but the trip clearly allowed Shaw’s to market itself in a positive light while preaching the wholesome values of exercise, good dental hygiene, and proper eating habits.

The youngsters were greeted by store manager Zulmira Comeau and tour leader Denise Carter, who normally works in the meat department. The children were given hats that said “Shaw’s Healthy Eater” and taken on a tour of the store. The virtues of teeth brushing were discussed in the toothpaste aisle. Calcium’s importance was noted in the dairy section and healthy snacks were discussed in the deli area. Snacks were provided at several intervals and pictures of the children were taken so they could be posted later on a wall of the store.

While discussing breakfast, Carter took the children to the cereal aisle and asked them to pick out healthy choices. One child held up a box of Cheerios and Carter said, “Good choice.” Another child picked up a box of Fruit Frenzies, a Shaw’s private label product. “This is good to have every once in awhile,” Carter said, “but you might want to try something else more nutritious.”

At the fruit and vegetable aisle, where Carter urged the youngsters to eat five a day, she held up an Ugli fruit and asked them if they would try it. They all said no. “How do you know you don’t like it if you never try it at least once?” she asked.

The tour ended with the children being allowed to scan some of the items they picked up during the tour. The children also each received a goodie bag containing an apple, a small box of Puffins corn cereal, a small bag of Crisp’ums baked crisps, a Hershey coloring book, a Dole kids cookbook, a 30-cent coupon for Cabot cheese, and a pencil and a sticker saying “Shaw’s Healthy Eater.”

Shaw’s spokesman Terry Donilon said the company paid Field Trip Factory about $24,000 for a 12-week trial at 24 of its stores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

As of last week, 68 tours had been scheduled involving 1,430 children.

Most have apparently gone well. Singer offered up report cards from several teachers who gave Shaw’s and Petco tours high grades.

But there have been some glitches. One tour guide from the Shaw’s store in Canton told Singer the script hadn’t captured the attention of two school groups she hosted, resulting in children running all over the store. Singer offered suggestions on maintaining control and promised to look into the matter.

Donilon said the field trips are a way for Shaw’s to contribute to the community and help children lead a more balanced lifestyle. “This is not about us selling more product,” he said. “This is about us doing something that’s right.”

Kathleen Seiders, an associate professor of marketing at Boston College, said the field trips represented smart marketing. She said the trips allow the stores to build good will with parents by partnering with schools in the community while getting to a child market that is notoriously difficult to reach.

Seiders said recent reports have indicated children under 12 will influence $200 billion in household spending in 2004 (it’s called the nag factor) and spend $35 billion of their own money.

“How can retailers go wrong?” Seiders asked.

Heidi Perlman, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said the Field Trip Factory’s educational approach sounded good. “In tight budget times, this is a good opportunity for kids,” she said.

Karen Silverstein, the Parkview kindergarten teacher who scheduled the field trip to the Shaw’s in Easton, said her class took a field trip to Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon in the fall and is planning to see a production of “Charlotte’s Web” in Providence this spring.

She said the Shaw’s trip meshed nicely with her efforts to teach her students about nutrition and dental health. She said the fact that it was free except for the cost of transportation ($75 for the bus) was a big plus.

“I think the children will take a lot more from this experience than me reading a book about the five food groups,” she said. She said she may schedule field trips to both Shaw’s and Petco next year.

Jeanette Volk, one of the parent chaperones along on the field trip, wasn’t troubled by the corporate sponsorship and in fact hadn’t even thought about it.

“You wonder how a grocery store field trip could be fun, but they did it,” she said. “The kids seem to be having a ball.”

Her 6-year-old son, Ben, agreed. He said he liked the fruit samples the best. And what did he learn?

“Healthy foods are good for you,” he said.
Bruce Mohl can be reached at [email protected]

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
Providing an effective voice for American consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Non-partisan.

Latest Videos

Latest Releases

In The News

Latest Report

Support Consumer Watchdog

Subscribe to our newsletter

To be updated with all the latest news, press releases and special reports.

More Releases