College bound

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Retailers are pinning their hopes for a successful back-to-school selling season on more than just the usual denim jeans and backpacks. From Wal-Mart Stores to Best Buy and Lowe's Cos., they're trying to invent a holiday of sorts: back-to-college.

"College is second to Christmas for a lot of retailers," said Ellis Verdi, president of DeVito/Verdi, New York, who has worked for a number of retailers, including Linens 'n Things. "It's the new holiday of the past few years."

Back-to-college presents good opportunities for retailers, according to the National Retail Federation, which pegs typical spending per college-bound student at $500 per year. That figure will be multiplied exponentially as baby boomers' children begin entering the ivy-covered halls of higher education. The Educational Testing Service estimates college enrollment will increase 19% over the next 14 years, and the U.S. Education Department's most recent Back-to-School report, released last year, said 52.8 million students, up 200,000 from the previous year, enrolled in colleges last fall. "It's very fertile territory for retailers," said Kurt Barnard, president, Barnard's Retail Trend Report.

The college focus also makes sense at a time when the economy is soft and spending on back-to-school for students of all ages is expected to drop. An American Express Co. survey of adults and teens aged 12 to 17 anticipates they will spend 4% less on clothing this year for back-to-school.

"It makes a lot of sense for companies like Wal-Mart to focus on college back-to-school," said Irma Zandl, president of youth-marketing consultancy the Zandl Group. She noted that more young people will want to go to college as high-paying blue-collar jobs dry up and the economy turns into an information-based one. Besides, she said, "College students need everything."

Wal-Mart this year is offering on its Web site almost daily updates, touted through e-mails, on college specials ranging from computer deals to small-size refrigerators and a new linens package for $39.96: pillow, comforter and extra-long sized twin sheet set, the unusual sheet size standard in dorms. Lowe's this year is not only pushing back-to-college in two newspaper circulars, but also mailing out a 20-page direct piece to college prospects. The home-improvement retailer is running newspaper ads in college-town papers and in-store, it's featuring college necessities such as storage bins, lighting fixtures, phones and answering machines. Lowe's did the work in-house. Best Buy, meanwhile, in addition to slashing prices on computers, is running an online promotion with a new car or decked-out dorm rooms as prizes.

For students of all ages, retailers are pushing low prices as well as denim-not only traditional jeans products but other apparel. Gap this month launches an estimated $40 million campaign from Modernista, Boston, anointing itself "the denim authority," and featuring a revival of its "Individuals of Style" campaign, which made its basics famous in the mid-1980s. Other denim efforts are expected from retailers ranging from mass merchants to department and specialty stores. On Aug. 13, Levi Strauss & Co. breaks a fall back-to-school campaign from Omnicom Group's TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., on MTV and other cable networks.

Ms. Zandl, however, noted Levi's continues to lose market share. Late last year, her research showed only 6% of boys aged 13 to 17 preferred Levi's jeans, down from 34% in 1995. The study found the jeans market extremely fragmented, with Tommy Hilfiger having the largest share at 11%.

So what's hot this year? Ms. Zandl said it's "bling, bling," a term popular in rap music. For girls, products are sexy, such as low-cut jeans with flashy finishes and for boys, it's a return to athletic wear such as updated varsity jackets and school-letter sweaters.

For both sexes, plain T-shirts with provocative print slogans reflecting "attitude" also will be big-sellers this year, she predicts.

Gap's Old Navy division is touting those trends in three spots, created in-house, featuring MTV's Molly Sims and a mini-fashion show, but the discount specialty store also is pushing its low price. Federated Department Stores' Macy's East is trying to win the fickle teen girl customer without a price message. This year, for the first time, it is experimenting with a direct-mail piece created in-house, consisting of a CD promoting fashion items such as belts with rhinestone-studded buckles. Macy's East also is advertising on radio, on free postcards and in teen titles such as Seventeen.

Contributing: Tobi Elkin and Ira Teinowitz

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