retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

The pencils, and the retail knives, are sharpened in the battle for the estimated $80 billion back-to-school shopping market.

Retailers across the country are rolling out new incentives to draw list-toting parents and kids into stores - and onto websites - to purchase basics ranging from a 96-cent folder to a $94 calculator.

The back-to-school shopping season got a jump start last month, as competitors launched “Black Friday in July” sales to challenge Amazon’s fifth annual (and revenue record-setting) Prime Day on July 15, which actually lasted two days. Apparel and consumer electronics dominated that July bump in back-to-school items. Clothing and shoes continue to account for 54% of purchases this month, followed by everyone’s long list of small items that definitely add up: lunchboxes, backpacks, three-ring binders, pens, glue sticks and more.

Admittedly, the retail landscape has changed dramatically since I last went on a back-to-school supply pilgrimage. I am dating myself by revealing we had to wait until mid-August for the photo-copied school supply list to arrival via U.S. Mail.

What hasn’t changed is the emphasis on price. According to a new survey from Deloitte, consumers want competitive pricing and clearly defined deals and coupons. As evidenced by a current Walmart TV commercial touting a “fashion folder” for 96 cents, and a Staples ad closing with Crayola colored pencils for 97 cents, shoppers are indeed paying attention to price, down to the penny.

What has changed, and continues to evolve, is how shoppers are researching prices and products and where they shop. According to the Deloitte survey:

• Most back-to-school purchases (56%) will occur in stores, with 90% of respondents saying they plan to visit a mass merchant store this season.

• Online shopping has increased to 29% of the market, up from 23% last year.

• More shoppers (60%) are using their smartphones to visit retailer sites, obtain price info and search for deals, while use of laptops and desktops is on the decline and down 6% from 2018.

• The later-season “undecideds” are tilting toward e-commerce.

I think the business takeaway is clear: consumers want multi-channel marketing that allows them to decide how, when and where they want to shop. Smart retailers need to make sure they deliver – in-store and in e-commerce. Websites, apps, and social media presence must work in sync create a consistent customer experience. Whether online or in the back-to-school aisle, time-pressed parents don’t want to waste time searching for products or they will move on to the next store or website.

Perusing the sales, I found both Target and Staples are featuring innovative programs. Target’s School List Assist finds supply lists for neighborhood schools through zip code, school name and grade. Shoppers can complete the list in just a few clicks, and also check inventory at the nearest store, before deciding where to make their purchase.

Staples, which also has many class lists available online, is hosting two-day neighborhood “block parties” with entertainment and raffles at select stores across the country – including 20% off of school supplies.

At both stores, and at many competitors, some of the very best deals are not available online - which is one way to encourage people to patronize bricks-and-mortar locations.

That said, I still think I’ll skip the block parties and back-to-school sales and replenish my copy paper and laser-jet ink supplies after the school buses start to roll.

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