What Retail Apocalypse? Back-to-School is a Multichannel Shopping Spree

Grace Williams

Back-to-school shopping is a huge opportunity for both online and traditional retailers. Savvy shoppers are bargain hunting, using coupons, going the second-hand route, and waiting for retailers to put big-name merchandise on sale.

Whoever coined the term “retail apocalypse” clearly forgot about back-to-school shopping. Gone are the days when families took an afternoon in August to get a few pairs of jeans and kick-around shoes, or when a Trapper Keeper and pencils were the only items in the cart. The back-to-school market begins its advertising and display fanfare several weeks before some districts even start summer break.

What may seem like overzealousness on the part of retailers merely reflects that the back-to-school season is an opportunity for retailers to cash in big time since it provides a large, captive audience, similar to the winter holiday season. Last year, the National Retail Federation (NRF) reported that consumers expected to spend an average of $1,007 in holiday-related expenses. Getting to back-to-school, the NRF anticipated serious spending for supplies in both the K-12 and college markets. Families with children in grades K-12 expected to spend $696.70 on average for school supplies, while families with kids heading to college expected to spend an average of $976.78.

Compared to last year, the NRF’s numbers are a bit lower: K-12 spending is expected to reach $26.2 billion, down from last year’s $27.5 billion, while college spending is expected to sing to the tune of $54.5 billion, down from $55.3 billion. The NRF’s cited demographics as part of the reason behind the decreases, with fewer school-aged and college-aged kids.

“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,” Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the NRF, said in the report. “Over the years, both teens and pre-teens are spending more of their own money on back-to-school items.”

Amber Perry of Newaygo, MI, has a household that used to include four school-aged children. This year, she is down to two and she has budgeted about $150 per child for her daughters, aged 12 and 13. Because the other two children are no longer reliant on her, she is able to budget slightly higher for the younger two. Even so, “I still don’t let them get too needful for the `have to have’ or `keep up with the Jones hype,’” she says.

This means shopping at high-end resellers such as Plato’s Closet and allowing each girl to pick out one pricier, big-ticket item, such as jeans or shoes, but keeping the budget at the forefront of every decision.

Plotting With A Purpose

Waiting for bargains and searching out what the best sales are is big fuel for many parents. Earlier this year, Flipp, an app that offers coupons and savings to consumers, interviewed 2,000 U.S. parents with at least one child between ages 5-22 on their back-to-school shopping plans and overall attitudes about the season.

Flipp found that 51% of parents plan their shopping more than four weeks ahead of the first day of school, while 42% plan two to four weeks in advance. Shoes were cited as the priciest items on the list by 22%; 71% anticipated making multiple shopping trips; and 58% planned an all-inclusive trip with back-to-school on the radar.

The multiple shopping trips and plotting-ahead strategies outlined in the survey ring true for Johnathan Garza of Quakertown, PA. When it’s time for the family to do their back-to-school haul, considerable thought and preparation go into the venture. For starters, two of his three children are teenagers navigating middle school, a world fraught with the possibility that the wrong shoe or backpack could signal the end of a social life. Garza tells his children to take it in stride and to always look for the discount, and his family’s chosen back-to-school shopping strategy reflects that.

“We [somewhat] went for practicality and value over what looks cool this year,” he says. “And we try to stick to a limit or budget in the stores.” Even so, when it came to shoes, Garza threw out his $30 limit and dished out far more for the latest trendy sneaks.

A primary reason for multiple trips in Garza’s case is simple: the sales. While the family tends to shop the discounters (think: TJ Maxx or Ross), there are still specific brands carried at department stores that his teenage daughter wants. Garza says the key is to return to the stores when the items go on sale, and he points that it’s also a chance to teach his kids that instant gratification is unnecessary when there’s a sale just around the corner.

“There’s no sense in purchasing something now if we can save,” he says. “As far as clothing goes, there’s no difference between buying something now or in a week when it’s on sale.”

The potential tug of war between “bricks and clicks” is null for many shoppers, according to Flipp, which found parents to be largely agnostic. The survey reported that 41 percent of parents planned to spend equally online and in store this season. This tracks for the Garza family as well. When they aren’t treasure hunting in discounters or canvassing the sales in department stores, they are also online. Garza has snagged gently used or never-worn items courtesy of the Facebook marketplace, where he has managed to find bundles of clothing that he can snap up for his sons at decent prices. “My sons are growing so quickly,” he says. “It saves a few dollars.”

Bottom line: Whether in store, online, or using social media, when it comes to back-to-school, retailers continue to cash in and even the savviest parents will bend to a few of the trends.