Is the Auto-Repair Shop on Your Back-to-School List?

Nontraditional Players Get in on $69 Billion Frenzy

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It's not quite Christmas in August, but with the annual back-to-school frenzy generating nearly $70 billion in sales, more and more companies -- from eBay to auto mechanics -- are looking to get in on the action.

Increasingly, retailers that seem to be atypical back-to-school destinations are tying marketing programs to the season.

Auto-repair company Tuffy, for example, offers students free maintenance inspections and is advertised with a mix of TV, print and radio ads, depending on the franchisee.

"In an economy like this when every dollar counts, if you can find a way to make your business relevant, that 's an opportunity," said Ellen Davis, VP at the National Retail Federation. "There's more awareness [among retailers] of everything that back-to-school represents from a sales standpoint."

Indeed, combined back-to-school and back-to-college sales are expected to reach $68.8 billion, according to NRF, making it the second biggest selling period of the year next to the winter holidays. And those sales are spread out over a wide variety of categories, some expected and some not. According to Google, searches for "eye exams," "acne medication," "duct tape," "car check," "kids haircuts" and "electric toothbrushes" all peak during the back-to-school season.

And that 's exactly why Tuffy is getting in on the action. According to the company, more franchisees than ever are embracing its annual back-to-school program.

"It really makes sense for the kids who have vehicles, whether they're in high school or college," said Barry Unrast, a spokesman for the company, which operates and franchises 220 service centers around the country.

Likewise, Food Lion is pumping up its back-to-school marketing. Tenisha Waldo, a spokeswoman for the retailer, said that this year the grocery store is putting a "stronger focus" on the back-to-school season. The campaign runs throughout August and includes weekly fliers, radio spots, point-of -sale, direct mail and digital elements.

Ms. Davis said that she believes grocery retailers, as well as drug stores, have a "huge" opportunity to capitalize on the season. Both, she pointed out, sell the pre-paid gift cards increasingly popular with parents. And grocery stores have an opportunity to market dorm snacks and microwaveable meals, while drug stores can promote the season as an opportunity to stock up on new personal-care items.

"You can hedge on a laptop or clothes, but you need to go to college with soap and toothpaste," Ms. Davis said. "That hasn't really been seen as a back-to-school necessity, but there's not room for negotiation."

EBay, meanwhile, is launching its inaugural back-to-school campaign this year with a dedicated back-to-school portal, prominently featured on its home page. The retailer is offering steep discounts, up to 80%, along with free shipping, on popular items such as fall fashion, small appliances, dorm bedding, book bags and musical instruments.

"We believe that rising tuition costs and economic uncertainty will drive strong online sales this back-to-school season," said Richelle Parham, chief marketing officer for eBay North America. "As customers stretch their budgets, they'll be looking for deals."

It's a bet likely to pay off. According to NRF, 19% of families with college students and 15% of families with kindergarten through 12th-grade students, said they'd be shopping more online as a result of the economy. And families shopping both online and in-store are spending, on average, 40% more than families shopping just in-store.

EBay's campaign includes display ads, paid search and targeted email through the beginning of September, plus a dorm-room design sweepstakes with HGTV design expert Kelly Edwards.

Ms. Parham declined to comment on how the effort would impact the retailer's marketing budget. A year ago, eBay spent $22 million on measured media during the third quarter, according to Kantar Media.

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