Back-To-School Bonanza

School's back for the semester. Students ranging from kindergarteners to college coeds spent their last few days of summer vacation exchanging their beach towels for new backpacks and shoes in preparation for their return to academia. With back-to-school shopping representing the second-largest sales opportunity for retailers, combined K-College spending will reach nearly $84 billion this year, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF).) That's a lot of three-subject notebooks!

Yet, back-to-school shopping patterns have begun to shift. The NRFsurveyed consumers with school-age children (not including college students) and determined that as of Aug. 8, less than 8% had completed their back-to-school shopping, the lowest figure in four years. Interestingly, more than 25% of respondents said they had not done any shopping, and by that point, school had already started in many cities from Georgia to Arizona.



One hypothesis to account for this industry shift is that children are becoming more risk averse when it comes to making back-to-school purchases. The New York Times recently ran a story that profiled a 13-year-old named Samantha who reported that she didn’t “want to be the only one wearing a different kind of backpack [than her classmates].”

With a heightened focus on finding the best prices, consumers are also continuing to incorporate e-comm into their back-to-school shopping strategies. The NRF reports that nearly four in ten (39.6%) of people will take their school shopping lists online, up from 31.7% last year and nearly doubling since 2007 when 21.4% planned to shop online.

In order to combat this behavioral change, brick-and-mortar retailers have adopted innovative marketing and merchandising programs to not only drive people to their stores, but encourage them to stay longer.

Here are three tactics retailers have implemented to accomplish this feat:

1) No Wheels, No Problem – Transportation from School to Store

Problem: Many students do not have access to a vehicle in college.

Solution: Retailers provide transportation to their stores from campus. 

Big box discount stores are the most popular back-to-school shopping destination, as 67.1% of consumers surveyed by the NRF planned on visiting them for school items. Target has tried to capitalize on this event by hosting private shopping parties for freshman at 36 universities across the country. Target goes so far as to rent buses for the students, closing the store and giving them a “shop-till-you-drop” welcome to college life. 

2) The Wedding Registry – Applied to Going Back to College

Problem: Upon arriving to school, there is a lot to do – move into new housing, get books, furnish a new place, socialize. Yet, there is little time.

Solution: Retailers provide customers with the ability to order their product in preparation for their arrival at school. 

Sure, the idea of purchasing something online and sending it directly to school is nothing groundbreaking. But, when it comes to buying big-ticket items like furniture, there is something to be said for actually sitting on it and seeing it in person and then being able to pick it up at your ultimate college destination.

Bed Bath & Beyond offers customers the ability to roam the store with a pricing gun and scan items they would like to purchase. This gives shoppers the ability to see the items at their local Bed Bath & Beyond and order them. Then, as if by wizardry, those items are miraculously loaded in shopping carts, ready to purchase at the local store. This exercise still requires customers to return to the brick-and-mortar store and, thus, will certainty prompt some last-minute forgotten purchases – further up-selling the shopping experience.

3) Two Birds, One Store – The Back-to-School Chop  

Problem: According to the Summer 2012 Online Shopper Intelligence survey, more than half of consumers participating in back to school shopping are doing so on behalf of more than one person 

Solution: Surprise shoppers with back-to-school necessities they don’t anticipate to find at that specific store, saving the consumer time.

The back-to-school haircut is a staple for nearly all kids returning to class at the end of summer. J. C. Penney rolled out a free-haircut promotion for the month of August to not only attract shoppers but also keep them in the store longer. Providing these additional in-store benefits can keep the brick-and-mortar experience thriving.

The global consumer shift to e-comm is happening across all shopping seasons, and the back-to-school sales opportunity is no different. That said, there is something iconic about going to a store with your children in preparation for a new school year. As long as retailers can continue to come up with innovative and timesaving strategies for shoppers, brick-and-mortar retail should be able to offset this change in consumer behavior.

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