Back-to-School Blues

Another “Back-to-School” season is upon us. Second only to holiday spending, this time of year presents a major sales opportunity for retailers. Unfortunately this back-to-school season has started off lackluster. Last week, stores such as Wal-Mart, Macy’s and Kohl’s reported less than stellar earnings for their latest quarters. Even more disconcerting is the fact that they issued concerned outlooks about the ever-important back-to-school and holiday seasons.  

A forecast from the National Retail Federation showed that this year’s fall sales for K-12 students will drop 12%, to $26.72 billion, after a record 2012.The NRF survey showed that the percentage of consumers who intended to buy electronics this school season declined, while teen retailers like American Eagle and Aeropostale have reduced their second quarter outlooks. 

Stay current, remain relevant and adopt adaptability 



Based on the weakened sales forecasted for this fall, it’s clear that a fresh assortment must be explicitly clear for each season. Teens are observant and fickle; trends go in and out of style and it’s on the retailer to correctly forecast and adapt to the evolving needs of consumers. Fast-fashion retailers like H&M and Zara offer merchants an opportunity to adapt to trends and evolve their assortments accordingly, depending on what’s deemed popular that season. 

There was no hot trend

From a consumer electronic standpoint, there wasn't a must-have electronic device released this year…no new iPhone or tablet. From a fashion standpoint, last year’s trend was most notably the colored denim explosion. This season, there wasn’t really a driving force to get moms and kids to the mall to spend and refresh their lifestyle – be it wardrobe or gadgets. Today’s teens seek out a sense of individuality. Yet, while they value assortment and their own styles, they still follow the herd in terms of what is deemed “popular.” They are constantly trying to convey a sense of self-expression while also identifying with something larger than themselves. 

The nature of the instant gratification generation

The global purchasing power of teens (12-19) has been estimated to be $819 billion – a market that cannot be ignored. Having grown up in an age of instant gratification, teens lack the ability to tolerate any kind of pause or delay. The connectedness that teens have adapted virtually eliminates the need for teens to wait for anything. The thought of getting something that might look like it is from last season is unthinkable for this instant gratification generation. 

How can retailers avoid the pending issue of declining “Back-to-School” sales in the future? What has become readily clear is that the landscape is shifting. Consumer behavior that previously existed each fall when families would flock to stores to refresh their wardrobe has changed. No longer is “Back-to-School” shopping an obligatory yearly habit; instead families seek a need to go to stores. It is now the responsibility of retailers to drive consumers to stores, because the natural inclination to do so has greatly diminished.

This trend is reflective of marketing as a whole, which is experiencing a shift. With the amount of information at consumers’ disposal, the tech savvy teen generation is yet another demographic that seeks out authentic and organic messages that marry-up to a holistic and easily digestible brand voice and identity. This “Back-to-School” sales decline illustrates the dilemma all marketers face today. They must tailor their specific messaging to resonate with their targeted audience and the platform/tactic being utilized while also ensuring it aligns with the overall message of the brand. While difficult, by successfully doing so, brands will stand out not only to one demographic, but all included in the purchasing process.

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