Attention, Sports Authority shoppers: Don’t mind those kindergartners doing jumping jacks in front of the treadmill display. They’re on a field trip.

Susan Singer, founder of the Field Trip Factory–the for-profit marketing company that’s brought them on this Monday-morning jaunt to the strip mall on Fullerton near Clybourn–observes from her post near the stair steppers. Her warm smile and shock of thick, curly gray hair make her look more like a librarian or teacher than a marketing executive. She shouts the day’s mantra with the kids and their tour guide, Romando Batchelor, a former martial-arts instructor and Sports Authority employee: “Safety first!”

Batchelor’s job is to take the kids through every department in the store, making simple points about fitness and safety and giving them a hands-on introduction to equipment they can use to keep safe while keeping fit. The trip is supposed to last between an hour and 90 minutes, but judging from Batchelor’s frustrated attempts to explain the term anaerobic to the five-year-olds, it seems doubtful it will go that long.

In the bicycle aisle, he selects one child to model a shiny blue helmet. He asks for a show of hands: Who owns a bicycle? Do you wear a helmet? Do you have a helmet? What about roller blades? He stresses the importance of wearing a helmet along with elbow, knee, and wrist pads.

In water sports, Batchelor asks the kids if they’ve ever been on a boat or gone water-skiing. He tells them it’s important to wear a flotation device at all times in these situations, then bends down to strap a child into a bright orange life vest.

“What if you already know how to swim?” asks Michael Popelka, one of the kids’ teachers. The group is from Christopher House, an Uptown community center that offers day care and kindergarten for children from economically disadvantaged families.

“Doesn’t matter,” Batchelor replies. “You should always wear the life-preserve vest, so you can always float. Safety first!”

“Safety first!” the children respond.

Popelka barely seems to hear Batchelor’s reply. He’s yanking a goggle and snorkel set out of a child’s hand. The kids aren’t the only ones distracted: the two moms who volunteered to chaperon are eyeing a display of three-wheeled canvas jogging strollers.

They move on to backpacks. Batchelor asks, “How many of you own a backpack?” Most of the children raise their hands. He tells them their packs should contain no more than 10 percent of their body weight. In the camping department Batchelor discovers that few of the kids own a fishing rod, sleeping bag, or tent but assures them, “We’ve got all the stuff for a good camping experience!”

Then Batchelor leads the children to a portable basketball hoop with a clear acrylic backboard. The yellow price tag dangling from the pole–$499.99–matches the shirts the children wear to trace them back to Christopher House. The shirts are field-trip protocol, used to keep track of kids amid the chaos of museum cafeterias and outdoor zoos. They seem absurd in the store, where at 10:30 on a Monday morning the aisles are mostly occupied by clerks marking merchandise.

Singer’s mostly here for my benefit–Field Trip Factory runs some 2,000 trips a year in Chicago alone, so she can’t go on them regularly. Near the end, she asks me what I think. I decide to be honest and tell her I wonder whether asking kids repeatedly if they own things the store sells will make them feel bad if they don’t or can’t. She nods her head and says she’ll talk with her staff about possibly revising the scripts they provide for employee tour guides. After all, she reminds me, this isn’t about buying things–it’s about teaching children the importance of fitness and leading a healthier lifestyle.

At the conclusion of the tour, which winds up after about 40 minutes, each kid receives a memento: an insulated nylon lunch bag emblazoned with the Sports Authority logo, containing a Sports Authority pen, a Sports Authority notepad, and a $5 Sports Authority coupon. Earlier, when I’d asked to see what sort of goodies the kids would get, Singer gave me a bag that contained the pen and the pad but no coupon. When I show her the coupon from one of the bags Batchelor’s handing out, she scrutinizes it, then says the store must’ve added it without her knowledge.

In 1993 Singer left a six-figure job with Frankel, a leading brand-strategy firm. A two-decade veteran of the marketing industry, she had consulted for McDonald’s, Quaker Oats, ConAgra, Alberto Culver, and FTD, among others. But what she wanted to do now was develop a product or service that would “help corporations find a way to give back to their communities.”

Setting up shop at a desk in the hallway off the kitchen of her Lakeview home and calling herself the Chicago Promotion Group, Singer spent four years working on freelance marketing projects, many of which were based on the cause-marketing principles she’d specialized in at Frankel. Cause marketing, also known as cause-related marketing, is a “strategic positioning and marketing tool that links a company or brand to a relevant social cause or issue, for mutual benefit,” according to the Cause Marketing Forum, an industry resource Web site.

A mother of two, Singer wanted to do something specifically for schoolchildren. In 1996 she pitched a field-trip program called Be a Smart Shopper! to Don Fitzgerald, marketing vice president for Dominick’s. The idea was to teach children healthy eating habits in the aisles of their local grocery store. “Back then the idea of childhood obesity wasn’t as well-known, but we were always interested in the health and welfare of the children in our community,” says Fitzgerald. “We thought we had the platform for delivering that message, and Susan had the vehicle in which to do it.”

Fitzgerald admits that at first he wondered how many schools would respond to the opportunity. Singer, he says, could present him with only qualitative, rather than quantitative, information on the potential return on his investment–a flat annual fee, which both he and Singer declined to disclose, plus the cost of training the employee tour guides. Nonetheless the program was launched during the 1997-’98 school year, and now all 99 city and suburban stores participate.

Fitzgerald is impressed with the number of children that Field Trip Factory has ushered through Dominick’s doors–45,000 in the last year alone. Chicago’s Lawndale store hosts a field trip at least every other week; stores in Gurnee, Oak Lawn, Romeoville, and Saint Charles in particular see a lot of kids come through too.

“In the Lawndale instance, the Be a Smart Shopper! program is a nice opportunity that some of the children may not otherwise get,” he says. That Dominick’s–along with a Walgreens, a Cineplex Odeon, and a smattering of smaller retailers–is in the Lawndale Plaza shopping center, at Roosevelt and Kedzie, which opened in March 1999 as part of a tax increment financing initiative.

Eldridge Graham, manager of the Lawndale store, says a tour guide walks children through each department. They’re introduced to examples of healthy food, like apples and oranges, then given slices of pizza, cups of V-8 Splash, and cookies. The tour guide explains how the meal’s ingredients fit into the food pyramid. Apparently manufacturers can get in on the action: “We might decide that we want a juice stop [in the script],” says Singer, “and if a manufacturer approaches us and says, ‘We’d like to be that juice,’ then that can be done.”

Dominick’s gives the children paper Dominick’s hats, which some of them wear when they return to the store with their parents. Some ask employees if they remember them from their field trip, says Graham. “The same kids talking their parents into taking them to McDonald’s are talking them into coming into the grocery store, where the food is healthier.”

Fitzgerald says the trips foster a more direct consumer-supplier relationship than most of the chain’s other cause-marketing programs–its sponsorship of the Y-Me National Breast Cancer Organization, for instance. “If you support a cause like Y-Me you might donate products, but you don’t know what kind of connection you’ve really made,” he says. “With this, there seems to be a connection made.”

Singer’s success with Be a Smart Shopper! paved the way for Things You Auto Know, where children were walked through Saturn dealerships for the purpose of teaching safe driving principles; the Medical Mystery Tour, in which doctors at the University of Chicago hospital imparted basic health info; and Million Dollar Kids, which shuttled students to banks and brokerage firms to learn math and money management.

By 2000 Singer was focusing exclusively on the trips. The company, now operating as Field Trip Factory, was running trips in eight states and Singer had made her first million, according to “Marketing with a Mission,” an article posted on MoneyMom, a Web site for mothers who want to work at home. “My friends told me to stop looking for a product and start seeing educational, life-skills field trips as the product itself,” she says. She moved from her hallway to an airy loft in Bucktown’s Paulina Arts Center, where she now oversees nine full-time employees, who market the trips to corporations and schools, answer questions about them over the phone, and write drafts of the scripts, which Singer says are then reviewed by experts.

A recent posting for an account manager job with the Field Trip Factory described it as “a fast-growing company offering a new type of marketing.” The ad promised competitive salaries and a bonus structure plus a 401(k). The company now has trips in 44 states, and has arranged more than 20,000 of them. The Medical Mystery Tour and Million Dollar Kids programs were discontinued last year; newer offerings include the Sports Authority trip, called Be a Sports Authority; Eye Opening Adventure, in which Pearle Vision employees explain eye exams and eye care and help children “take part in the process of proper frame selection”; and Petco’s Fur, Feathers & Fins, which covers animal characteristics, habitats, and care.

“I’ve always believed marketing can benefit society as much as it can negatively influence society,” Singer explains on MoneyMom. “I set out to do marketing that had some inherent benefits.” Field Trip Factory, she says, is a win-win situation. For the kids, “we deliver free up-to-date information to teachers to help bring important lessons to life.” For the businesses, “we’re basically offering corporations a McDonald’s form of kids’ marketing to achieve three major objectives: drive parent and child traffic, create future lifelong patronage and inspire future job placements.”

This is the same “win-win” philosophy that accounts for most intrusions of corporate America into the school day–from fast-food counters in the cafeteria and soda machines in the halls to Primedia’s Channel One, which provides schools with audiovisual equipment in exchange for children’s undivided attention during its ten minutes of news and two minutes of commercials each morning.

“Selling America’s Kids: Commercial Pressures on Kids of the 90’s,” a report by Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, found that “promotional campaigns and commercial messages permeate most waking hours of our children’s lives.” The report starts with a composite sketch of “A Day in the Life of an American Kid.” Among the highlights of the school day: “A ‘Total Health’ program from NutraSweet teaches kids to use NutraSweet to control weight. ‘Wecology’ magazine from McDonald’s teaches the ecological advantages of Styrofoam packaging. ‘Changing,’ a booklet from Proctor & Gamble, teaches girls how to use Always, its brand of sanitary pads. Chef Boyardee’s ‘Good Nutrition’ program teaches kids to eat pizza and gives recipes that feature Chef Boyardee products. Colorful posters on classroom bulletin boards advertise Reynolds Wrap, Birds Eye frozen vegetables, Promise margarine, and Bakers Chocolate.”

“Why do companies provide these materials to schools?” the report asks, then cites pitches from companies like Lifetime Learning Systems, which touts itself as “the first company to create sponsored educational materials that are printed and distributed free to teachers.” Here’s ad copy it directed at corporate clients: “School is…the ideal time to influence attitudes, build long-term loyalties, introduce new products, test market, promote sampling and trial usage and–above all–to generate immediate sales.”

Perhaps the greater question is why schools provide advertisers with access to their students. Part of what corporations are buying through Field Trip Factory is the implicit endorsement of the school, says Allen Kanner, a Berkeley-based child psychologist and the coeditor of Psychology and Consumer Culture: The Struggle for a Good Life in a Materialistic World, slated for publication in October by the American Psychological Association. Kanner’s also spearheading a campaign to get the APA to denounce psychologists who use their background to help advertisers target kids.

“It’s very well established that children under the age of eight are incapable of understanding the motives of an advertiser,” Kanner says. “They do not understand that an actor is smiling in order to sell them something. They’ll think that the actor is just happy. Advertising to young children is unethical. They are incredibly malleable and unsophisticated.”

Problem is, many schools are strapped for cash. “Marketers are taking advantage of the educational crisis going on in our country, which places school administrators and teachers between a rock and a hard place, desperate for affordable supplies and out-of-classroom activities,” Kanner says.

This, he continues, has paved the way for a slew of new, unscrupulous methods of advertising to kids. You might remember reading about the controversy over ZapMe, a dot-com that provided schools with computer labs in exchange for the right to gather information about the students and sell ads on its browser. That project went down in flames in the fall of 2000, after the company announced a program called ZapPoints, which would have given students incentives to reveal more personal information. But by then some 2,000 schools were already letting the company collect and sell aggregate demographic information–age, gender, and zip code–to advertisers.

The Consumers Union report explains how Coke and Pepsi trade scoreboards or percentages of vending-machine sales for machine placement, and how Campbell’s might donate needed equipment in exchange for soup-can labels brought in by students. But, it notes, when Noxzema and Tampax collaborated on the TeenPak–a plastic bag containing product samples and coupons–educators offered it to some half a million juniors and seniors with no apparent financial incentive at all.

Chicago Public Schools classes constitute about half of Field Trip Factory’s bookings in the city. But the company did steady work through CPS’s spring break last month with organizations like the Southeast Asian Center in Uptown and the Northwest Institute for Contemporary Learning, which sent first and second graders to Petco’s Clybourn Avenue location in conjunction with National Pet Week. Field Trip Factory also works with private schools and groups like the Brownies and the Cub Scouts.

Singer says many teachers approach Field Trip Factory, as opposed to the other way around. They learn about the program on Web sites like, a resource site for teachers of grades K through 8; through word of mouth from other teachers; and from mass mailings. The Field Trip Factory Web site is simple–almost crude–and easy to navigate. Within a few minutes, a teacher can register his or her school for upcoming trips and download permission slips and activity worksheets. The “Basketball Benny” sheet, designed for younger students like Popelka’s kindergartners, instructs children to pencil in the equipment Benny needs in order to play basketball safely–knee pads, elbow pads, and safety goggles–and then to draw themselves playing their favorite sport, including any safety items that they wear. The Sports Authority logo appears in the lower right-hand corner.

Shirlonda Allison, assistant director of the Northwest Institute for Contemporary Learning, says she’s extremely pleased with Field Trip Factory and estimates that her students have gone on at least half a dozen trips since the institute first received a flyer in the mail a few years ago. “What they liked most is the hands-on, interactive trips,” she says. “I know when they went to the grocery store they liked the samples. We try to do a lot of free activities so that our children and parents don’t get weighed down with too many costs.”

“We have budgetary concerns, and the Sports Authority field trip was free,” says Popelka. His kindergarten class also recently went to Petco. “We did a trip to the zoo, and the kids liked that more,” he says. “The zoo is obviously a lot bigger. The advantage at Petco is that they had fun petting the animals.”

Singer is quick to point out that Field Trip Factory trips aren’t intended to supplant more traditional field trips, and stats from local museums indicate that they haven’t. But it is cheaper to take the kids to Petco than to, say, the Brookfield Zoo: though the zoo admits Illinois school groups for free, attractions like the dolphin show and the children’s zoo cost extra. So does bus parking. What’s more, going to Petco doesn’t take a whole day, and the kids don’t have to bring or buy lunch.

The Christopher House kids’ Sports Authority outing was the school’s fifth or sixth Field Trip Factory trip, says Erika Bell-Coleman, the agency’s director of kindergarten and school-age programs. Two years ago Bell-Coleman saw an ad for Field Trip Factory in Chicago Parent magazine and went to the company’s Web site to register. The only cost Christopher House incurs on the trips is for busing, about $90 per trip. (In some cases the corporate sponsors will even subsidize transportation.)

While Bell-Coleman has been happy with most of the trips, there’s one her students will not repeat. Last spring, she says, a class of Christopher House kindergartners waited 45 minutes at a Dominick’s store for their trip to begin because the employee scheduled to host the tour was not available. “It was completely disorganized. They finally got a butcher to walk us around the store who didn’t know anything. The kids didn’t pay attention to it because they got food. We like the Petco and Sports Authority trips, but we’re never going back to Dominick’s.”

Jeff Handler, vice president of marketing for the Sports Authority, says he was first introduced to the company through a video clip of the Dominick’s program. It “struck a chord,” he says, because the children were studying the sugar content in a box of Cheerios and Cheerios happens to be one of his favorite cereals. After Singer met with his store managers at a leadership conference, he decided the concept would work in a retail environment. Like Fitzgerald, he won’t say how much his company pays Singer, but he praises the program’s ease of execution and low training costs, and says it’s not uncommon for children to come back to the store with their parents and say hello to their Field Trip Factory tour guide.

It’s also not uncommon for children to come back to the store with their parents and spend money. According to Handler, the coupon in the goodie bag–the one Singer didn’t know about–was quite a success. “We found out that a third of the people [who redeem the coupon] are totally new to the store,” he says. The retailer uses a code on the coupons to track them. “We’re only tracking that the coupon gets redeemed and not what the family is buying,” Handler adds. He says he’s pleased with the coupon-redemption rates, which at 3 to 6 percent are at or above the industry average. He won’t comment on how many families come back and buy more stuff after the visit when the coupon is redeemed, but the company is tracking that as well.

Handler says 95 percent of the educators, children, and parents involved love the program. “The only question I’ve legitimately gotten was about commercialization,” he says. “Am I teaching kids to be consumers? Let me ask you if the educational system is willing to take the 200-calorie-Coke machines out of the schools. Personally, I have more difficulty with those programs. It’s natural for us to have parents and children come into our stores for the purpose of getting them active, so they’re not just watching television and playing video games all the time.”

Why then did the Christopher House kids get lunch bags as a souvenir instead of, say, a basketball or something that would more directly encourage activity? A basketball would be too expensive, for one, he says, and “it’s not a lunch bag. It’s a thermal container, so you can put your fruit juice or granola bar in it. Our program is about teaching children to lead a healthier lifestyle.”

Singer has also encountered a few concerned skeptics, but at the moment her most vocal detractors seem to be animal-rights activists. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has issued an action alert about Field Trip Factory’s involvement with Petco, which has been sued over allegations of inhumane and unsanitary treatment of the animals it sells. “PETA has contacted FTF founder and president Susan Singer several times with detailed information about PETCO’s alarming record but to no avail,” reads the alert. Singer, who describes herself as an animal lover, says she tried to partner Field Trip Factory with the Anti-Cruelty Society–but the nonprofit organization had neither the staff nor the space to accommodate the trips.

Singer likewise tried to involve the YMCA in her fitness-related field trips, but the Sports Authority wasn’t interested. Handler elaborates: “The thing with the Y is, it’s difficult to take 30,000 square feet of equipment into another facility. At the store, the kids are getting bikes and a bunch of different backpacks and then it becomes problematic to move, and for what purpose? So you’re trying to avoid the commercial pretense of being in the store? There’s something fun about the environment of going to a store. It’s an experience. It brings more added value than just bringing a few basketballs into a gym.”

Back at the Sports Authority on Fullerton, the Christopher House kids cheer Batchelor as he dunks a basketball through the (lowered) $499 portable hoop. “You guys have been a lot of fun,” he tells them. “Definitely the smartest and the best we’ve had in a long time.”

He ushers the children to the front of the store, where he distributes the nylon bags to them as they wait for the bus. Three boys huddle around a stack of metal cylinders emblazoned with Cubs and White Sox logos.

“What are these for?” a boy asks his friends. They consider the question for a few moments. One boy taps a can speculatively.

His face lights up. “It’s for popcorn,” he shouts. The boys stand on their toes to peer inside, no doubt hoping to find cardboard dividing the cheese from the caramel, like in the popcorn tins companies send out to clients at Christmas. They look disappointed when another boy tells them that they’re only garbage cans.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Lowenstein.