Grandparents help with back-to-school bill

In the midst of one of the toughest back-to-school buying seasons in years, grandparents in many families are pitching in to get kids clothed.

Three of the top five cities where folks are projected to spend the most per person in 2008 on children's apparel also rank among the top five cities for residents over age 65, according to new data crunched for USA TODAY by Pitney Bowes MapInfo, a specialist in demographic research.

Put another way: Cities with many residents in the typical grandparent age group are becoming best friends of children's apparel retailers, who usually target ads to a younger demographic.

"Retailers may need to ask themselves: Are they missing a boat here?" says Leslie Nogue, product manager at Pitney Bowes MapInfo.

Those cities — including Juneau, Alaska, West Palm Beach and Fort Myers, Fla. — have retirement communities with lots of well-to-do grandparents. But it's not just rich grandparents helping out in tough times, retailers say. It's grandparents of all means.

With prices for food, gasoline and home heating up, parents are more willing to let grandparents help with clothing costs, says Dan Butler, vice president of retail operations at the National Retail Federation.

The number of Americans 65 and older topped 35 million in 2006, or 12% of the population. That number will hit 88 million by 2050, representing 20% of the population, the Census Bureau says.

Retailers say grandparents are now major apparel buyers for grandkids:

•CWDkids. The catalog and Internet children's wear specialist also has retail stores in Richmond, Va. After sales clerks saw many grandparents shopping at the stores, it created "Grandparents Day" promotions for Tuesdays, its slowest day. They get 10% off for showing photos of their grandkids.

Tuesday business has jumped, says Jim Klaus, president. "We're trying to figure out how to do something similar online" where Klaus says he's seen a recent spike in gift orders with notes signed, "Love, Grandma and Grandpa."

•Kelly's Kids. Sales reps for the retailer, which sells heavily through home parties, see grandmothers becoming among their best customers, says Meg O'Beirne, marketing director. "Grandparents are in a better position to lend a hand in tough times."

•L.L. Bean. "It shouldn't be surprising that grandparents are stepping in and helping" in tough times, spokeswoman Carolyn Beem says. And she says they view occasions like entering kindergarten or middle school as milestones worth new outfits.