Despite Early Promotions, Families Will Delay Back-to-School Shopping

Retailer Messaging Has Crept Earlier and Earlier, but Cash-Strapped Consumers Will Wait It Out, Spend Less This Year

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Marketers may want to take a closer look at the timing of their back-to-school campaigns.

Like "Christmas creep," back-to-school creep has invaded the nation's retailers, with ads promoting school supplies launching as early as mid-June. But schools in some parts of the country are still in session until the end of June. And even schools getting an early start don't typically begin classes until the end of August. Still, the bulk of retailer's back-to-school campaigns typically roll out in early July, reaching a fever pitch by the end of the month.

But despite marketers' early promotions, the National Retail Federation reports that more parents will be shopping closer to the beginning of school this year. Nearly one-third of families will begin shopping just one to two weeks before school starts, up from less than one-quarter last year. And more than 40% of shoppers will begin shopping three weeks to one month before school starts, up from 33% last year. That means, for many of those students not hitting the books until September, shopping won't kick off until early August or later.

Mike Gatti, executive director at the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, a division of NRF, said the push to promote back-to-school shopping earlier in the summer began about 10 years ago. Consumer spending was up and consistently growing year over year, he said, leading to increased promotions. Now, it's nearly impossible to stop those early-summer promotions, for fear of falling behind a competitor.

"You've got to be out there with something. You have to get your brand out there and make sure you're a back-to-school destination," Mr. Gatti said. "[Retailers] are learning how to deal with this finicky consumer we're seeing. [They] are trying to corral the consumer into shopping at a certain time, but it's harder and harder."

Retailers are eager to get a jumpstart on the shopping season, given that it's the second biggest sales period behind the holidays. According to NRF, back-to-school and back-to-college spending is expected to top $68.8 billion this year, even as some families tighten their purse strings. Spending per family with children in grades K-12 will average $603.63, down slightly from last year's average of $606.40. Back-to-college spending will average $808.71, down from $835.73 last year.

"Parents aren't opposed to spending on what they need, but parents want their children to take a good look around at what they already have before deciding what to buy for back to school this year," said Matthew Shay, NRF president-CEO. "Retailers understand consumers are extremely focused on value and are taking this opportunity to offer substantial savings on merchandise."

Parents are still feeling pinched by the troubled economy, the survey found. More parents say they will buy store-brand or generic items, comparison shop, shop for sales and use coupons. Last year many families replenished their kids' closets and replaced worn-out items that had been in use throughout the recession, meaning that spending in categories like clothing and school supplies will decrease slightly this year, the NRF found. Nearly 30% of those surveyed said they would be making do with last year's school items.

Fewer families also reported that they would be purchasing electronics this year. This year just more than half of families with children in grades K-12 said they planned to purchase electronics, compared to 64% a year ago. Among families with college-aged kids, 46% said they planned to buy electronics, the lowest level since 2005. The back-to-college crowd is expected to spend about $210 per family, an 11% decrease from a year ago.

"Young adults are often the first in line to buy the latest tablet device, smartphone or MP3 player, so many college students are already armed with the latest gadgets they'll bring with them to campus," said Pam Goodfellow, consumer-insights director at BigResearch, which conducted the survey with NRF. "A decline in electronics spending could also be due to the fact that many popular college items, like laptops, have experienced huge drops in price over the last several years."

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