Deloitte Q&A: The Vanishing Back-To-School Season

Amid the flurry of forecasts about how much (or maybe how little) parents plan to spend outfitting their kids, one clear trend is that consumers care less and less about the back-to-school season, at least as it’s defined by retailers. Marketing Daily catches up with Alison Paul, vice chairman of Deloitte LLP and its retail & distribution practice leader, for her take on how BTS, a critical period for many retailers, is changing.

Q: Deloitte just reported that while total back-to-school spending is likely to be up this year, parents alone expect to spend 13% less than they did a year ago. What was surprising to you about that?

A: We are still sorting it out, but the surprise is that this makes the second time in three years that consumers tell us they plan to spend less. Of course, they may actually wind up spending more, as they did last year. But it seems to us this is due to the increasing realization that this is not your mother’s back-to-school season anymore. I remember when I was a kid, one year they didn’t have the superhero lunchbox I wanted, and that was it — it was the end of the season and there were no more lunchboxes. These days, parents are very aware that they can buy supplies and clothes anytime during the year.

Q: So they don’t have to shop just because retailers tell them to.

A: Exactly. And we’ve seen this same trend with Black Friday and holiday shopping. You no longer have to wait for the store to set up that seasonal aisle. And so people are shifting purchases around. I had a colleague tell me, for example, that his child had a back-to-school sale as a school fundraiser last spring. 

Q: Walmart just announced big BTS rollbacks, something they and other retailers do with great predictability. How are consumers viewing those sales now?

A: There is so much more price and product transparency, and social media has really fueled that. We’ve noticed an increase in parents who, for example, are writing and reading online reviews through social media. They know when something is priced well, and can wait for it.

Q: Back to the 13% decline parents told you about. Are they more nervous about the economy?

A: Not at all. People are more optimistic than they have been in the last five years. 

Q: Anything especially remarkable to you in the college segment?

A: Yes, they are increasing their spending on things like shower stuff and bedding. And there are big shifts in electronics, with a 9% jump in smartphones. Nine in 10 own smartphones now, compared with just 84% who own a desktop or laptop. And tablet ownership in this group doubled. So we’re seeing a clear move to more mobile devices.

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