NEW YORK -- Want to cut the time and hassle of shopping for your kids?
A bevy of subscription buying services with names like FabKids and Kiwi Crate have emerged over the past year that cater to parents who want help keeping their kids dressed and entertained.
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Think of it as a modern, kid-friendly spin on the "Beer-of-the-Month Club" model.
For $20 to $40 a month, selected items arrive at your doorstep in brightly colored boxes, saving time and gas money. Most services offer free shipping. And some say they're actually cheaper than going to the store.
But shopping experts say you could also go broke if you don't do your homework. Those monthly fees can add up. Not to mention the temptation to go "subscription happy," signing up for a host of services that just clutter up the house. And you have to weigh which services best suit your needs and offer the most flexibility in returns and other financial terms.
"This saves shoppers time," says Sucharita Mulpuru, a Forrester Research analyst. "It creates a shortcut in their lives. But the challenge is whether the quality of merchandise is good, whether it's useful and whether you get value."
Here's what to think about:
Figure out your needs
First, consider how useful or enjoyable the service is. Check out the sites' Facebook and Twitter feeds to see what others are saying about them.
For arts-and-crafts activities, sites like Kiwi Crate, Green Kid Crafts and Babbaco offer projects the companies say are selected by panels of experts. These projects, which are different each month, range from papier-mache moons to paper robots.
For services like these, it's important to be realistic about how much time you'll be able to devote to the projects, which can take several hours.
Do you really want to be surprised?
Not all the services let you choose exactly what you get. That may be a bigger issue for clothing, because it's a more personal purchase.
Some services try to customize the experience. FabKids personalizes the three-piece outfits for girls based on a 15-question quiz. That includes questions on size and age but also the child's favorite color and even personality traits.
Based on that profile, FabKids emails you three top outfit picks. If you don't like them, you can go to the site to pick something else.
But if you like the luck of the draw, you might be better off with Wittlebee, which sends six different items each month. The site targets newborns to 5-year-old boys and girls. Members can specify style preferences and needs. For example, are you looking for pajamas or socks? But the company throws in a twist. Wittlebee's CEO Sean Percival says, "You get half of what you want." The other half is a surprise.
Be clear on what you get
Consider what you're getting in that box. For example, Kiwi Crate and Babbaco provide the first pair of scissors in the first shipment, and always provide glue. But for Green Kid Crafts, you're buying your own. That service's hook is that all its materials are eco-friendly.
Green Kid Crafts and Kiwi Crate both charge $19.95 a month. Babbaco is $29.99, but it also provides an item tied to a monthly theme. So to go with a moon and star kit kids earlier this year, it sent along a pair of binoculars.
As for clothing sites, are you a brand snob? Wittlebee features such brands as Calvin Klein, American Apparel and smaller labels like Laughing Giraffe, for $39.99 monthly.
FabKids' three-piece outfits for a monthly fee of $39.95 are designed by the company. For style guidance, FabKids has teamed up with actress Christina Applegate, a mom herself.
Is it really worth bypassing stores?
Jodi Furman, author of a blog called Livefabuless.com, says parents looking to save money on art supplies, rather than trying to find unique projects, should just go to a store like Wal-Mart or Target.
"Now is a good time to stock up," said Furman, because of stores' back-to-school sales. But Kiwi Crates and Babbaco argue parents waste money because many times they buy art supplies in bulk and then never end up using them. The materials are also of high quality.
FabKids CEO Andy Moss says his site offers the same quality of clothing as you might find at J.Crew or Gap but for half the price.
Wittlebee's Percival says that each box has a retail value of $100. When the service was launched in February, it was selling a lot of closeouts from brands but now big clothing suppliers are approaching the company and are willing to give big discounts.
Look for flexibility
Poke around to make sure you can return the box of goodies for a refund if you are disappointed.
At FabKids, you can skip the month at no cost if you don't like any of the options. You can also cancel your membership at any time, as in the case for many of the sites.
Be careful about keeping track of your memberships. You can easily forget to cancel the service when you don't want it anymore.
"That's one more thing that could get lost in the fray," Furman says.