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Back-to-School Shopping is a Two-Headed Beast

By Miller Zell
  • Retail
  • Back-to-School Shopping is a Two-Headed Beast

While we would never compare the gift-seeking festiveness of the holiday season in December to the back-to-school shopping frenzy of late July through September, retailers should note one critical similarity.

Consumer spending.

Back-to-school is the second-largest seasonal shopping period, according to the National Retail Foundation.

Total back-to-school spending is expected to reach $27.8 billion or $519 per student this year, up slightly from $510 in 2018, according to Deloitte.  Another survey, from Prosper Insights & Analytics for the NRF, estimated the per student number closer to $700.

Total combined spending for back-to-school/college shopping should approximate $81 billion (Deloitte).

Of course, this probably isn’t a shock to parents and it shouldn’t be a surprise to relevant retailers. As always, retailers want to sell and build loyalty while customers want ease, convenience, great prices and enjoyable experiences. The question then is how these two constituencies can marry their goals during this critically important, high-traffic and sometimes stressful shopping period.

The fundamental and overriding point is retailers need to audit their shopper journey every year and gather data on how it is changing. They then need to react accordingly, meeting their customers where they are along every platform and channel. And perhaps they should project forward and offer a bit more.

For example, Deloitte found that “electronic gadgets represent the only category in which online sales are expected to grow at the expense of in-store shopping (an increase in nearly 20 percentage points).”

It also noted that “Mobile use is expected to increase this year (+7 percentage points in planned use), while desktops/laptops, and social are expected to decline. Newer tech (e.g., voice assisted, digital reality) has yet to gain traction for B2S.”

That means you need to meet your customers where they are, knowing that price, product and convenience lead their considerations when selecting where and how to shop. It should go without saying that stores need to make sure their inventory matches local schools lists and should even consider kit packing those lists for parents who prioritize a speedy transaction.

It’s also important to know that your customer is a two-headed beast, as more than 90 percent of parents say they allow their kids to participate in the shopping trips, according to a “Back to School Shopping Experience Survey” conducted by Fatherly and Staples.

“Members of Generation Z are clearly becoming more involved with back-to-school purchasing decisions rather than leaving the choices up to mom and dad,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said. “Over the years, both teens and pre-teens are spending more of their own money on back-to-school items.”

So retailers need to connect their optimized shopping experience to conjoined customers whose wants and expectations might be – probably are -- very different. The child wants what’s hot; the parent wants an efficient transaction and outstanding price point.

That creates a complicated brew. Another survey by Coinstar  reported that 70 percent of parents find B2S shopping stressful. It noted, “[c]ontributing to the anxiety are increasing school expenses, peer pressure to buy the latest fashions and ongoing costs throughout the school year.”

That means retailers need to be aware of this as a specific customer pain point. Associates need to be alerted to the potential for parent-child conflict/stress and how they might positively intercede. Also, retailers can offer potential distractions for children, such as a play area. While digital screens are often the bane of parental existence, this might be an opportunity for digital content to be updated in a child/teen-friendly way.

Stress or no stress, according to Fatherly, “After shopping, nearly 68 percent of parents take the family to another activity together… Of this group, over 90 percent choose to take their kids to lunch.”

Perhaps this is grounds for a tie-in promotion with a near-by restaurant for lunch? Or maybe retailers could help parents by offering up a reward for constructive participation from a child, such as a movie pass or free or discounted tickets to an amusement park.

Last but certainly not least, retailers should be aware of an opportunity to give back to the community. What about a donation drive to help support underprivileged students?

As in all things retail, it’s about creating the optimum customer experience, however the customer chooses to engage the retailer. While few will start exclaiming “Happy Back-to-School Season!” retailers who remove customer pain points can cash in and build customer loyalty.



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