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Consumer Trends

An early pulse on the back-to-school shopper

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In places like New York City where school ended just a few days ago, preparing for “back to school” can be hard to believe for some parents. But for families who wish to avoid the long lines typically associated with late August school and college shopping, spread out their spending and ensure they get their hands on the hottest products at a reasonable price – some retailers have them covered.

Merchants like Walmart and Target have in recent weeks started promoting traditional back-to-school and college goods both in stores and front and center on their own websites. Walmart allows families to shop online and sort by grade, and even search for specific bundled items like crayons, notebooks, flash drives and more. Target is giving away $15 gift cards to anyone who spends $75 on select bedding options for college-bound students, and has created a “College Checklist” to help their shoppers adequately prepare for life after high school.

While the $72 billion industry that is back to school/college isn’t quite in full swing – it likely won’t be until after Independence Day – a few other retailers are “creeping” in with their own promotions. L.L. Bean is offering 25 percent off backpacks right now, and Macy’s is reminding its Millennial and Generation Z shoppers to check out #MacysBTS on Twitter to see what’s trending. Apple also just announced their back-to-school promo: a $100 gift card for any college student that purchases a Mac, and a $50 gift card for students who buy an iPhone or iPod. 

Why the early promotions? According to NRF’s 2013 Back-to-School survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, families are paying attention to these deals earlier than ever before: 24 percent of consumers with children in grades K-12 last year said they began shopping for school items at least two months before school started, a significant increase from 15 percent in 2007.

Economy's Impact On BTS Plans
Among households with a school age child
Charts from the NRF Foundation’s Retail Insight Center. To access this data and more research please visit the Retail Insight Center.

It remains to be seen if 2014 will be a “replenishment” summer for families, or if mom and dad will ask ther kids to reuse what they can to save a few bucks. We do know from our most recent survey conducted in June that 21 percent of those with children in elementary, middle or high school plan to spend less overall because of the current state of the economy. Budget priorities will also drive three in 10 to buy more store brand items, and another 45 percent plan to shop for sales more often. One-third of families will use coupons more often while shopping for school-related items.

College students and their families will also make specific spending decisions because of the state of the economy: 14 percent will share or borrow textbooks instead of buying them, and 23 percent will make do with last year’s items.

Recently, Telsey Advisory Group CEO and Chief Research Officer Dana Telsey joined us at our office in DC for a council meeting.  I had the opportunity to pick her brain on a few things; one of them – the back-to-school season. She says to look for soft fabrics and “ready-to-wear” styles, knowing that many schools across the country start back up when temperatures are still well above 80 and that today’s students want that warmer weather fashion. She also noted that department stores, specialty stores, drug and discounters will be competitive once again this summer.

NRF’s 2014 survey will be released in mid-July with a special media call that day with our Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz.  


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