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McKids Clothing and Stores
In the eighties, the fast-food powerhouse McDonald’s decided to partner with the retail juggernaut Sears to sell a line of clothing for children. This partnership would start with clothing in Sears stores, but would eventually turn into standalone stores that featured clothing inspired by the company with the Golden Arches.
The Clothing Line
In July 1987, if you happened to walk into your local Sears, you might have been lucky to be one of the first people to see their brand-new clothing line, McKids. But the idea for this product line started at Sears back in 1985. According to David Stewart, who was the retail giants’ vice-president of men’s and children’s apparel at the time, “We were looking for a big idea. Something we could put our arms around as a marketing idea.”
They wanted to find a partner that people would know right away. A company with strong marketing that had not yet been tapped for retail, and whose product appealed to children.
You seldom hear from kids that McDonald’s isn’t fun.
David Stewart (Sears VP of Men’s and Children’s Apparel)
McDonald’s seemed a perfect fit. After all, in the mid-eighties, what kid didn’t have a positive association with McDonald’s?
The fast food chain might not have been heavily involved in retail, but over the preceding decade they had mastered their marketing message. They saw Sears as a good fit and the two began work on the clothing line that would become McKids
What’s in a name?
While they would inevitably call the clothing line, McKids. They also played around with two other concepts. The longer and harder to spell, McClothes and the almost laughable, McDuds. Personally, I prefer McDuds, but if they had chosen it and the line failed right away, the jokes would have written themselves.
Making Sears McFun for Kids
While eventually they would launch a separate retail space for McKids clothing, they started by carrying the brand in Sears stores. But they just didn’t throw cloths on the rack, they attempted to try and capture some of that fun they were talking about. This meant deploying what was called a McKids Fun Tree.
The fun tree was made of sturdy cardboard and would have a fun house mirror on one side and a video screen on the other. It was a magnet for children who would play in front of the mirror and stare at whatever was on the screen. All of this was happening under the watchful gaze of a giant hamburger and cardboard versions of various classic McDonaldland characters like Ronald, Grimace and the Hamburglar, in mini-balloons and blimps.
Prices were reasonable, things like pants and sweatshirts would run you $5.99. While would go for $11.99.
How does one describe McKids clothing. I think a good starting word is colorful. It was the late eighties, and colorful patterns were already a hot trend in popular fashion. So picture that, but add logos and characters.
Seeing makes it a lot easier, so for those of you who didn’t get to live through the magic age of McClothing, here are some images from the 1988 Sears catalog that features some wonderful McKids clothing.
According to Sears, the target audiences for these clothes was under 8 years old. They found that kids will accept the “kid” moniker up to that age before insisting on less “child-like” clothing. According to Stewart, “Kids will outgrow them before they outwear them.”
The concept worked and Sears was moving product. It was successful enough that they very quickly started to think about expanding the offering. They considered making the McKids section of the store bigger, but ultimately decided to put that aside in favor of standalone retail stores outside of Sears.
This allowed Sears and McDonald’s to do things that would have been out of place in a Sears store. They could offer a more upscale kid-friendly environment and expand the lineup of clothing. Sears was in its “everyday low price” strategy phase. What they wanted to start selling at McKids wouldn’t be lower-priced.
They were headed upmarket, not only would they carry McKids, but they started having brands like Ocean Pacific, Guess, Lee and Bugle Boy on their shelves. To make it more inviting to kids they would also stock the places with books, toys, videos, puzzles, and games.
So in August 1989, the first McKids store opened. They learned a lot from their two years of McKids marketing. Stores were large, about 3,400 square feet, modern, and brightly lit to appeal to parents, but it had lots of touches just for kids. This included a play area, televisions, aquariums and famously a 4-foot-high door at the front of the store that kids couldn’t resist (nor could some adults).
The McKids Camera
One of the more interesting and unusual “amusements” you could find at the store was tied to a big screen TV. Normally they would show educational programming and kids could sit back and watch from a set of child-sized bleachers. But they could also turn on a store video feed and kids could see themselves on the screen. This turned out to be a huge hit, and it was great fun watching kids putting on a show for the camera while simultaneously watching themselves.
Upon launch, sales at new stores were great, with curious parents and happy kids visiting locations and spending plenty. Stores were exceeding sales by as much as 80 percent during that first year, with 60 percent of those sales coming from non-McKids brands. Things were looking up, and the company unveiled plans to build 300 store nationwide. Which was perfect timing since Sears was losing significant market share to specialty retailers.
Things were looking good for McKids, but sadly it would not last.
Unfortunately, fortunes shift quickly in retail and the novelty of the stores, which produced profits during store openings, didn’t continue. It didn’t help that Sears was looking to cut costs after years of slowing profits and in January 1991, they announced that they would be closing the existing McKids stores.
Of the 300 stores they hoped to build, they had finished 47 of them in 15 states. Over 600 people would lose their job and the McKids product lines would be re-absorbed into Sears stores.
McKids would linger in Sears stores for a few more years. Then in 1997, they signed an exclusive agreement to sell the brand in Walmart. This exclusive agreement would last until 2003. The very next year, McKids went international with new standalone stores opening in China. Some of those stores were still operating as of 2018, but information about how they have weathered the last few years is hard to come by.
This wouldn’t be the only use of the McKids brand over the intervening years. McDonald’s would use it to brand events and community programming for kids, a short-lived DVD series from 2006 called, McKids Adventures, bath products, and even used a variation of it on a video game.
If you are a gamer, you might remember an interesting platformer for the Nintendo Entertainment System released in 1992 by Virgin Interactive, M.C. Kids. The colorful game, which was ported to other platforms, is one long commercial for the golden arches. While reviews for it are mixed, it’s a much better game than you would expect it to be, with interesting level design and fun graphics.
McKids is a classic example of brand extension. Where a successful company stretches its reach by lending its name to other products. Scholarship on the long term effects of this strategy are mixed. When successful, it can lead to added profits, but does it dilute the brand, and hurt the parent product? Experts tend to disagree.
With McKids, it does not appear to be damaging the fast food giant. At the same time, it seems to be a niche distraction. So you would wonder why they keep the idea alive? The answer, is of course, money.
Looking to the future, can the current style of McDonald’s advertising, which is not as kid-focused as it was in the past, lend itself to a kids clothing line? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, we can all enjoy the history and our memories of this fun colorful clothing line and the retails spaces it has spawned.