Retailers Look to Tempt Back-to-School Shoppers

(The Record/MCT) -

At this time of year, Ken Wrisley, who owns a 1,200-square-foot store in downtown Oakland, N.J., has the same mission as the chief executive officers of major retailers:

Wrisley has to bring his “A” game to the crucial back-to-school shopping season.

The two weeks at the end of August and the first two weeks of September are his busiest time of the year.

Retailers big and small are expected to work hard this year for consumer dollars, as parents continue to be careful about spending. Americans will spend $72.5 billion this month and in September to outfit their children for elementary school, high school and college, according to projections by the National Retail Federation, which every year surveys parents about their spending intentions.

Heading into this year’s back-to-school selling season, parents told the retail group that they plan to spend an average of $634.78 on clothing and supplies for school-age children under age 17, or 7.8 percent less than last year.

Last August was a particularly good month for back-to-school retailers, as pent-up demand left over from cautious spending habits following the recession pushed school-spending estimates to increase by a whopping 14 percent compared to the previous year. NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay believes parents who splurged for big-ticket items such as a laptop last year don’t need to buy those items this year, resulting in lower budgets for school supplies.

Shay said that while the federation’s survey showed consumers plan to spend less this year than the previous year, spending levels are still much more robust than during the recession. The estimate for average spending this year is the second-highest on record in the decade the federation has been conducting the survey.

But retailers are still expecting consumers to be price-conscious this year, and have ramped up plans for special sales and promotions to draw shoppers.

Research firm Experian Marketing Services analyzed online searches related to back-to-school, and reported recently that “sales” and “sales flier” are the most common terms connected with back-to-school searches currently. “Definitely you can see the price sensitivity on the part of the consumer,” said Bill Tancer, the general manager of global research at Experian Marketing Services. “Consumers are looking for that best price,” he said. “It is a mission of the consumer to really stretch their dollar this back-to-school season.”

Retailers, Tancer said, also tried to jump-start the season this year by aggressively pushing back-to-school sales and special offers in July. This year, he said, 41 percent of retailers with back-to-school promotions sent out their email offers in July, compared with only 22 percent in 2011.

“As retailers do that more and more, we will probably see the behavior pattern of consumers change more and more,” Tancer said, with bargain-seeking consumers shopping earlier.

Back-to-school season increasingly has become the exclusive territory of national retail chains, which invest heavily in advertising and promotions tied to school clothes and supplies. Those ads pay off, according to the Experian Marketing Services report, which found that the top seven back-to-school-related internet searches as of last week were for Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Office Max, Sears, Staples and Office Depot.

Before the proliferation of big-box stores, back-to-school shopping usually meant visits to one or more local merchants, with many shopping areas having one or more children’s clothing stores, a children’s shoe store, and a local stationery store that sold notebooks, pencils, binders and other supplies now sold by office-supply chains.

Kids’ shoe stores are one of the last vestiges of those days, and the owners say they are kept in business by parents who want personal attention not found in the chains and who want to make sure the shoes fit properly.

At the Ped-Agree shoe store in Wyckoff, N.J., sisters Cathie Mattei and Luanne Rush are keeping alive a business that was started in 1895 by their cobbler grandfather, Vincent Badagliacca. “There are fewer and fewer of us every year,” said Mattei. She said she and her sister are seeing a shift in shopping habits. “People prefer going to independent shoe stores rather than the malls,” said Mattei. “We’re finding a big trend toward that.”

When Will Parents Start Shopping?

  • Three to four weeks before school starts: 45.2 percent
  • One to two weeks before school starts: 32.1 percent
  • Two months before school starts: 14.6 percent
  • The week school starts: 5.4 percent
  • After school starts: 2.7 percent

Back to School, By the Numbers

  • $72.5 billion: Amount American parents are expected to spend on clothes and supplies for school- and college-age children this fall.
  • $634.78: Amount the average family will spend on clothes and other supplies for children in grades K-12.
  • $836.83: Amount the average family will spend on clothes and other supplies for college-age students.

SOURCES: National Retail Federation 2013 Back to School Survey, Prosper Insights & Analytics