How Everyone’s Favorite Kids’ Clothing Cartel, Carter’s, Is Still Killing It In the Apparel Game After 150 Years

Now that the 4th of July has passed, we are full-throttle into Back to School Season. (Don’t believe me? Visit any local shopping mall or Target store and you’ll see pink sequin ice cream tops being cleared out for navy blue cardigans, autumn palates, and apple prints.) 

For anyone with kids, Back-to-School season means brand new clothes. And brand new clothes means Carter’s. Whether you’re buying a glut of leggings and joggers, or your kid’s entire fall wardrobe, Carter’s is going to factor in. 

This children’s clothing behemoth does a few billion dollars (or so) in annual sales each year. If you’ve got a pair of eyeballs and a small child in your life, you know Carter’s is literally everywhere. In terms of North American market share, by 2020 Carter had: 

  • 25% market share for baby and toddler apparel 
  • 13% market share for children’s apparel for 3 & 4 year olds
  • 12% market share for children’s apparel for kids of all ages from birth to age 10
  • 28% of all kid’s pajamas

Carter’s has had sales growth every single year for the past 30+ years. And on the website, Carter’s boasts of selling 10 garments for every child born in the United States.

With 4 million babies born every year, that’s 40 million onesies. With the average onesie (0-3M size) 13 inches in length, Carter’s makes enough onesies every year to stretch around the globe 39 times. 

Its market longevity and relevance are remarkable, if not miraculous. Carter’s is over 150 years old; it’s survived 2 world wars, a pandemic, global outsourcing, the worldwide web, and rise of Walmart, Target, and Amazon. 

By all accounts, Carter’s should be toast. 

And yet Carter’s not merely just hanging in there, Carter’s is killing it. Carter’s is the kid’s clothing cartel. Carter’s going to bury us all – in butterfly onesies and dinosaur hoodies. 

How the hell has Carter’s pulled this off? 

Who the hells is this Carter’s brand, adorning my kids in their onesies and socks and rompers and PJs? 

This mama wanted to find out. They’ve got a fairly interesting story, and I’ve found a new level of respect for Carter’s. Carter’s is a total, badass, battleaxe.  

Carter’s Origins

Carter’s roots in the textile and garment industry can be traced back to 1800’s New England, then American’s textile and garment capitol – at least in the churning out of garments and machine spun cloth. 

William Carter, a British immigrant, founded the William Carter Company in Needham, Massachusetts in 1865. At the time, Carter’s manufactured union suits, shirt bands, vests, drawers, and corsets. By 1922, the product line had expanded to include children’s undergarments and athletic wear. 

The company stayed in the family for the next 70 years until the Carters sold the company in 1990. Although the company was sold, its namesake label has stuck. Carter’s. It just drips off the tongue so sweetly. 

Carter’s Growth (You Can Thank, or Blame, a Bougie Target Mom) 

In the 1990’s and early aughts, things got interesting and Carter’s began morphing into the brand that bougie Target moms (aka BST moms) love to dis. Carter’s moved into growth mode, and began making major changes in branding and distribution. 

“Not to brag or anything, but I was at Target the other day and…”

-Every Bougie Mom Ever

In 2001, Carter’s reached an agreement with Target to create an exclusive, spin-off label “Just One You”.  Two years later, Carter’s later created an exclusive line for the retail Goliath, Walmart, in 2003.

In 2005, Carter’s purchased OshKosh B’gosh for a whopping $312 million. A move that totally blew the minds of young Gen Xers and older Millennials everywhere, as it transformed OshKosh from a fancy-pants, out-of-reach label their parents would never buy into a budget-friendly label sold at mass discount retailers.

Over the next decade, Carter’s continued consolidating its position. Then in a three year-window (2016-2018), Carter’s acquired Skip Hop baby gear company, launched an Amazon exclusive label, and then rolled out its own line of organic, hippy-dippy baby and toddler clothes. (That’s a compliment. Their organic line is cute as as an earth-toned bug. On an organic, ethically sourced rug.)

Skip Hop

So Here’s the Timeline to Carter’s Total Closet Domination: 

  • 1865 Carter’s is founded, as William Carter Company, in Massachusetts.
  • 1922 Children’s garments are being made. 
  • 1990 Carter’s family sells the company. 
  • 2001: Carter’s creates “Just One You” spin-off label for Target.
  • 2003: Carter’s creates “Child of Mine” spin-off label for Walmart and in the same year OshKosh B’gosh creates “Genuine Kids” spin-off label for Target. 
  • 2005: Carter’s buys OshKosh B’gosh for $312 million (making it the last time it was expensive to buy the OshKosh label).
  • 2010: Carter’s creates “Precious Firsts” spin-off label for Target, creating an adorable, cozy layette collection for babies.
  • 2016: Carter’s buys Skip Hop, a company manufacturing baby gear and toys. 
  • 2017:  Carter’s creates “Simple Joys by Carter” for Amazon.
  • 2018: Carter’s launches its own organic brand label Little Planet.

Even Carter’s Doesn’t Think Carter’s is That Cool 

Well, not quite. 

But part of the success of the Carter’s brand has been to downplay its brand, or rather prioritize massive distribution over brand-building.

Instead of competing (and failing) with Amazon, Target, and Walmart, Carter’s has transformed its biggest would-be rivals into its largest distribution centers. Damn, Carter’s. Respect. 

Carter’s and Carter’s Best Distribution Centers

By creating exclusive lines for Amazon, Walmart, and Target, Carter’s has been able to cater to different market segments: 

  • Amazon: Savvy professional millennial parents who want to stockpile onesies and sleepers, and who like the convenience of shopping Amazon online to buy staples in bulk or fill in wardrobe gaps.  
  • Walmart:Bargain shoppers who are looking to get the best price possible. 
  • Target: Impulse buyers who like bright and shiny things, drinking Starbucks coolers in-store, and hoarding trendy clothing and home décor.  

Lasting Impacts of Carter’s Private Label Partnerships 

So yeah, in a short 15-20 year window, Carter’s became a beast. Carter’s is like the original 3D printer. It just kept replicating itself, with different private labels, and partnering with other retail giants. 

But there have been downstream impacts, making me wonder: Should Carter’s get some of the credit (or blame) for fast fashion? 

Target Made Carter’s Up Its Style Game

To succeed in Target stores, Carter’s had to compete for moms’ attention in-store. Shoppers were going to Target for shelf-stable staple goods, like shampoo and toilet paper and CD’s. (Reminder: it was 2001.) 

So to catch the eye of Target moms, Carter’s had to produce even flashier colors and patterns. Every time you see sunglass-wearing pineapple print dresses, or skateboarding sloth swim trunks, you can thank the Carter’s-Target duo. Fun prints have always existed, on some scale, but with Carter’s Target line, things really began to explode. 

Carter’s needed to up its game to work in Target stores where being stylish, and new, is key.

Carter’s Needed Loads of New Style Drops to Stand Out in Store

Remember that cute dress you saw at that Target store five weeks ago?

Yeah, me neither.

At Target, it feels like last month’s fashions are already way out of style. In fact, they often are. You can see month-old fashions being cycled out with orange clearance stickers. Softlines have short lives. 

For Carter’s, this has meant more and more fashion drops are needed: Both to catch the shopper’s eye, and keep up with the consumer demand for fresh, new merchandise.

Designers used to do seasonal collections (i.e. four collections per year, or just one collection for spring/summer and another for fall/winter), but now it seems like fast fashion demands multiple “drops” or “releases” per season. Some brands even produce a staggering 52 micro-seasons a year. More styles, more colors, more cuts, more fabrics, more new, new, new — and at lower than ever prices. 

Even more upscale children’s brands, like Childhood’s Clothing and Mini Boden do multiple drops or releases per season. 

Carter’s and Target have both shown the more eye-catching kids’ clothes you create, the more buyers will buy. Especially if there’s a (perceived) good deal now (40% off sale) or later (I can flip it on BST for what I paid).  

Carter’s initial success at Target is what led to additional Target-exclusive lines (Precious Firsts and Genuine Kids), and then partnerships with Walmart and Amazon. 

But Really, Carter’s Is Just Everywhere 

Ask any mother or grandmother: the term Carter’s is ubiquitous with kids’ clothes. Carter’s means kids clothes the way Tupperware means plastic storage containers or Kleenex means facial tissue. The domination is real. 

You can shop these looks at 10,000+ locations where Carter’s is sold. (Unless you get there 3 weeks after this article is published and these items are already clearanced out.)
  • A recent market research study by Kantar found that over 90% of millennial parents and over 80% of baby boomer grandparents had shopped the Carter’s brand or at a Carter’s store within the past year.
  • Carter’s has a retail presence in over 1,000 standalone stores in the United States and Canada. 
  • Including Walmart and Target, Carter’s apparel is sold in over 20,000 physical locations around the globe. 16,000 of these locations are in the United States. In addition to Target and Walmart, Carter’s is sold in hundreds of department stores and retailers like Macy’s, VonMaur, JCPenney, Kohl’s, Marshalls, Bealls, Costco, and Sam’s Club.

In an added coup, Carter’s has minted deals with dozens of shopping deals sites like Swagbucks or Rakuten to offer Carter’s promo code deals and cashback shopping rebates. Swagbucks will pay you for $10 (as a Visa or Amazon gift card) for making a purchase of $25 or more at Carter’s. Everywhere you look, there are cues and prods to shop more, and save more, at Carter’s. (You can also sign up for Swagbucks with my referral link.)

Carter’s Is Making On-Trend Moves to Appeal to BST Moms 

Carter’s is trying to woo BST moms who value ethically sourced clothing, more muted color palettes, and more Instagrammy styles. 

Little Planet is Carter’s organic clothing line. Its aesthetic reminds me of Quincy Mae, Spearmint Love, L’ovedbaby and Kate Quinn. It’s a distinct nod in their  direction, but at Carter’s pricing. 

Mommy and me sets (coordinating mommy robes and baby rompers), soft bubble gauze rompers, mulsin dressers, and rust color apricot prints. 

Organic items from Carter’s Little Planet collection.

Closing Thoughts on Carter’s Closet Domination 

The sun isn’t going to set anytime soon on Carter’s kids’ clothing empire. With over 30 years of consecutive growth, and annual revenue in the billions, Carter’s is going to be dominating the children’s clothing market for years and years to come. 

And after killing it with the under 10 crowd for this long, Carter’s has reached definite icon status. Carter’s clothing is an American household staple.

If I were to bury a time capsule in the backyard to be opened in 200 years, it’d contain photo prints, my Louis Vuitton bag, the first quilt I made, vinyl LP’s, and two Carter’s onesies. The ones the hospital nurses dressed each of my babes in, within minutes of their birth.