Back-to-school 'season' gets extended spending

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Marketers are spreading their back-to-school budgets over a longer period of time to accommodate changing shopping patterns, according to a recent study of some of the nation's leading retailers.

The International Mass Retail Association, whose members include discount department stores, warehouse clubs and off-price stores, found in a membership survey that the traditional back-to-school shopping season has gone the way of corporal punishment. One factor is students taking a larger role in clothing decisions, often waiting until school starts to see what their peers are wearing.

"Many apparel items like denim and shorts successfully make the transition from summer to fall," said John Costello, exec VP-marketing at Sears, Roebuck & Co., which has stretched its marketing push into October. "Back to school has become back at school."

Retail analysts and other leading marketers concurred.


Numerous schools have varied start dates, not just the once traditional week after Labor Day.

More importantly, they say, with many households consisting of one or two working parents, major shopping trips are less likely to occur at one particular season.

And many families are living on tight budgets and are spreading out purchases as much as possible.

"People are buying closer to need," said Alan Millstein, publisher of Fashion Network Report, often because their credit cards are at their limits.

T.J. Maxx also relaxed spending around back-to-school time, said Don Carlin, senior VP-account director, Ingalls Advertising, Boston.

"We're not seeing 50% of the budget spent at back-to-school time," he said. "You have to be able to differentiate yourself in the consumer's eye 12 months of the year."

Levi Strauss & Co. also has taken a longer view around the fall shopping season.

"You have to go back to school with a notebook, but you don't have to go back to school with everything you're going to be wearing for the next six months," said Steve Goldstein, VP-marketing and research, Levi's Brand USA.


But marketers can't ignore the season altogether, he said.

Back to school still ranks highly as a shopping period, the retailers association said, remaining No. 2 in importance on the shopping calender behind the holiday season.

"You want to have share of mind upfront," he said, with Levi's spending "significant money in August, September, October and November."

Andrea Kent, director of retail for American Express Co., also has noticed the lengthened season in her charge card surveys.

"The majority of shopping for supplies is done before school and basics are purchased early," Ms. Kent said. "Then there is more upside spending throughout the fall," especially after the TV season.

Overall, parents planned to spend $363 per child for back-to-school items, up 12% from the previous year, Ms. Kent said.

Copyright September 1996, Crain Communications Inc.

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