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Happy Campers at the Store

Retailers Find Summer Kids Programs Pay Off

By Caroline E. Mayer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 12, 2003; Page A01

Magda Sobalvarro-Ochoa has been in Toys R Us more often in the past four weeks than in all the five years since her oldest child was born.

The reason is simple: She and her two daughters, ages 5 and 2, are determined to attend almost every session of Camp Geoffrey, a free afternoon activity offered in all Toys R Us stores three days a week for six weeks during the summer.

At the Rockville Pike Toys R Us store, Catherine Adams works with the children who stop at Camp Geoffrey, an afternoon summer event. (Photos Michael Lutzky -- The Washington Post)

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"I find myself arranging my schedules around this," said Sobalvarro-Ochoa as her daughters, Diana and Emilia Ochoa, decorated dresses for Madeline dolls. "We try to make it every time; it's a good chance to be creative and keep the kids busy."

It's also a good chance to stock up on videos, toys and birthday presents for her daughters and friends. "There's only about two times I've left without buying," the Rockville resident said.

Camp Geoffrey is only the latest twist in how stores, shopping malls and movie theaters try to come up with new ways to reach kids and their parents, especially during the summer. While many retailers have offered special activities to lure young customers into their stores for years -- such as story times, book clubs and build-it-yourself workshops -- several major national chains have started to institutionalize these events, making them more organized and festive and holding them on a more regular schedule to make the camps a destination in themselves.

In many cases, the retailers are really trying to appeal to parents, offering them some free time or, at the very least, inexpensive, often free, entertainment outside the house.

What's more, by offering creative or educational activities, retailers are zeroing in on exactly what mothers want. "A child's development is the first thing on the list of the new breed of Gen X mom," said Ron Coughlin, senior vice president of Strottman, a California-based youth and family marketing agency. "This is an innovative way to drive traffic, by doing something beyond offering a coupon and saying, 'Come here and buy.' "

In the Washington area, the companies offering such camps include Apple Computer Inc., the Michaels Stores Inc. arts and crafts supplies chain, and Loews Cineplex theaters.

Apple plans to offer its camp in August in the company's five dozen retail stores nationwide to children whose parents bought a computer between June 15 and Aug. 10. Apple expects as many as 2,500 kids to attend the free, week-long course, and most will be without parents (unlike Camp Geoffrey, where parents need to stick close by).

The company sees the camp as a way to grab new customers, said Senior Vice President Ron Johnson. "For us to grow market share, we need to continue to let people share what's going on in computers," Johnson said. "If our customers love their product, they will tell others and more will buy Macs."

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