Back-to-School Ad Campaigns Start Jarringly Early as Marketers Seek Tight Budgets

Not Long After the Bell Stops Ringing, Walmart And Apple Try to Jump-Start the $84 Billion Spending Season

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Are you ready for back-to-school? Because retailers are.

Walmart and Apple are already promoting school-related products, while others, including tween brand Justice, are touting steep discounts.

School's out? Not at Walmart.
School's out? Not at Walmart.

"In seven and a half years, I've never once seen so much emphasis put on back-to-school before July 4," said National Retail Federation spokeswoman Kathy Grannis. Historically, most consumers begin shopping for back-to-school supplies three to four weeks before school starts. And retailers have typically followed their lead, beginning promotions in mid-to-late July. This year, however, they're trying to get a jump on people's spending.

"It is one of the most competitive times of year for big retailers. They know consumers are on budgets, and they're vying for those dollars," Ms. Grannis said. A survey from BigInsight found that 37% of respondents expected to cut back-to-school spending this year because of the U.S. economy. In 2009, during the recession, 50% said they'd spend less overall.

Back-to-school and back-to-college spending accounts for $84 billion in sales, making it the second-biggest season for retailers. Though that's a far cry from the winter holidays' $580 billion take, it handily exceeds Mother's Day, which is the next-biggest holiday-shopping period, with $21 billion in consumer spending.

In the wake of the recession, the NRF has noted more consumers are attempting to space out expenditures, shopping early during the winter holidays. Then there's a lull, followed by a big push as Christmas approaches and discounts peak. Ms. Grannis speculated the same pattern could begin playing out during back-to-school, with some shoppers stocking up early but leaving apparel purchases and specific classroom requests for later.

Not all retailers are pushing up their plans. Staples said it will begin setting up back-to-school displays in early July. Marketing for Target and JC Penney won't get under way until later in the month. And a message on Amazon's back-to-school landing page takes a humorous approach: "Shopping for back-to-school supplies already? We hate to tell you ... you're early." The page instructs shoppers to come back later in July.

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