Middle-Class Shoppers More Sensitive to Back-to-School Supply Costs

WEST MILWAUKEE, Wis. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT) -

The giant pencil cutouts screaming, “One Big Sale Here” throughout the Target store are a dead giveaway: This is the country’s second-biggest shopping season.

And for the great majority of Americans, the annual back-to-school extravaganza is unfolding across an increasingly price-sensitive landscape.

Cash-strapped, middle-class parents are being economically challenged by ever-growing lists that have expanded beyond protractors and No. 2 pencils to include graphing calculators, flash drives and Handi Wipes.

Retailers, meanwhile, have launched a wave of promotions as they vie more and more on price alone – potentially pinching their bottom lines and signaling a hypercompetitive environment for the critical year-end shopping season, just three months away.

“It seems very aggressively promotional,” said Brian Yarbrough, senior analyst for investment firm Edward Jones, who pointed to pricing at big-box giants Wal-Mart and Target.

Among Target’s promotions: $5 gift cards for customers who spend $25 or more on school supplies. That’s one reason Maria Garcia, 38, and her two daughters recently trekked to the Target store.

“For us, quality matters, but price matters, too,” Garcia said.

She shops around for the best sales, paying close attention to the Sunday advertisements so she can compare prices. Because of that, she knows to buy her high-school daughter’s graphing calculator at the big-box store, but to take her binder-shopping to Dollar General.

The sort of price sensitivity Garcia is showing meshes with the observations of every analyst interviewed.

“Retailers are heavily competing on price this year,” said Matt Ong of San Francisco’s NerdWallet Inc. “And that’s not surprising (because) really what we’re looking at in retail right now is too many stores.

“There are too many big-box retailers. There are too many department stores. Some of these stores will fail in the next few years, and because of that, they’re really throwing everything they have out there.”

And many of those stores – the ones that cater to middle-class shoppers – are fighting over a shrinking pie.

The recession bit hard into the wallets of average Americans. In real, inflation-adjusted dollars, median household income in the U.S. fell by $4,800 from 2007 through 2012, data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics show.

“You say, how is back-to-school going to be?” asked New York-based retail consultant Howard Davidowitz. “Back-to-school is going to be price-sensitive for 80 percent of the people. They’re going to watch every nickel, and they should. … So if you’re a retailer – of course they know all this, and they recognize that price has never been more important.”

All the same, the average family with kids in kindergarten through 12th grade will spend $669 on back-to-school shopping, up 5 percent from last year, a National Retail Federation survey estimates.

Clothes represent the largest single category of spending, which is why chains like Kohl’s Corp. look for fashion trends that can be tweaked a bit to resonate with the store’s customers.

Kohl’s also is selling school supplies this year – a first for the company. The range of supplies being offered, in a partnership with Office Depot, is limited, but it gives Kohl’s another weapon in the battle to get customers through the door.

Retailers want to position their stores as the consumer’s first stop, because that’s where most back-to-school purchases are made, said Jeff Green, a consultant based in Phoenix.

While back-to-school is the second-biggest shopping period of the year, its importance is dwarfed by the leader: the end of December. Shoppers shelled out some $600 billion in the 2013 year-end shopping season – eight times the amount expected to be spent this year on back-to-school items.

But back-to-school signals the shape of year-end-shopping-season sales to come, and that may add to retailers’ worries. They already have plenty. Beyond the still-sluggish economy, the increasing use of the internet as both a shopping venue and a shopping tool has put pressure on prices.

Even mighty Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has seen lower same-store sales – a key retail metric – for five straight quarters, Davidowitz noted. Kohl’s was down four of the last five periods. Target, which also has had to grapple with the expense and public-relations black eye from its massive data breach in December, posted lower same-store figures in three of its last five quarters.

With this year’s heavy discounting on school supplies and such, retailers have “already set the stage for the (year-end shopping season) to be very price-sensitive,” Green said.

Yarbrough agreed.

“I would expect (the year-end shopping season) this year to be extremely promotional,” he said.