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New Rules for Back-to-School and Beyond

Aug 30, 2016
Marshal Cohen, Chief Industry Analyst ;
Apparel , Retail

Another school year is here and that means shopping for everything from pencils and pants, to comforters and coffeemakers. One-third of consumers purchase some kind of back-to-school related merchandise for themselves or someone else attending kindergarten through college. While the back-to-school season has become a ritual for many, the rules of shopping engagement have changed.

Online Education

The combination of the timing of in-store merchandising (more on that later) and heavy digital promotion is driving consumers online. According to a recent survey we conducted with back-to-school shoppers, more than half of consumers who purchase back-to-school items online are purchasing apparel/clothing. This is telling for the industry since online is generally not this heavily penetrated within the apparel business.

The majority of consumers, however, said that the ability to try on clothes and browse before purchasing was the reason they bought back-to-school clothes in a store. Proximity to home/work and product selection were other reasons for shopping at a brick-and-mortar store. Each of these reasons point to a desire for convenience, which online retailers have caught on to and are addressing with  simplified return options, free and expedited shipping, and endless selection at the click of a button.

Generally speaking, the majority, 65 percent, of consumers prefer shopping in a store. However, only a little more than half of consumers feel in-store shopping enables them to better understand a product before purchasing. The biggest discrepancy in consumer perception between retailer types exists in their view of who gives them the best deal. While more than half of consumers think online retailers enable them to get the best deals, just over a third feel that way about brick-and-mortar stores.

Flip the Calendar

The traditional retail merchandising period for back-to-school is June through August, and since 40 percent said they would begin shopping for back-to-school in July or earlier, there is some justification for this thinking. However, more than half of consumers said they didn’t plan to start their back-to-school clothing shopping until August (47 percent) or September (5 percent), and as of the third week in August, only 58 percent of back-to-school shoppers had completed their shopping. The issue here is that by the time these people start shopping, the back-to-school displays are old, the merchandise is picked over, or it’s already replaced by Halloween. It’s still worthwhile for retailers to set up early, but they need be aware that there is a sizeable group that starts shopping for back-to-school late in the season. 

Back-to-school is tricky for retailers because schools start at all different times and there may be several school districts in their area. They are starting to question the traditional timing of back-to-school merchandising, so it will be important to watch how the consumer responds once changes are implemented, even if it as simple as refreshing displays and the supply of key items at the most opportune times.  However, there is still time for retailers to adjust their holiday season plans to align with how and when consumers shop for the holidays. Let’s shoot for an A+ rather than a solid B.   

Source: The NPD Group, Inc. / Omnibus July and August 2016