Back-to-school shopping

What back-to-school spending says about the holiday season

As back-to-school shopping kicks into high gear, the nation’s retailers must be as excited about the start of the coming academic year as school kids are bummed about it.

More shoppers say they are starting the annual ritual earlier this year and that they are planning to spend more on notebooks, computers, three-ring binders, new clothes and other back-to-school essentials, the National Retail Federation says. But better than all that for retailers is what school buying trends could mean for the upcoming holiday season — emphasis on could.

Back-to-school spending

“If people are confident, they will spend,” NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz said during a media briefing on the federation’s survey. “My feeling is that we’re witnessing, right now, some solid spending, across the board, across the retail spectrum, and I expect that will continue, at least in part right now, as we reflect on back-to-school spending.”

Ellen Davis, NRF’s research senior vice president, said families of K-12 students planned to spend $673.57 on back-to-school clothes and supplies, up from about $630.36 last year. College students and their parents said they would spend $888.71, a bit less than last year’s $899.18.

Despite the drop in per family spending on college students’ needs, overall back-to-school and college spending would reach $75.8 billion, if respondents spend as they say they will. That’s up from $68 billion last year.

And that extra spending is an opportunity for those selling school-related goods.

“With spending plans increasing this year, I think it will be a bit easier for retailers to convince shoppers to spend a little bit more, maybe buy that extra top or upgrade their laptop a little bit more than they initially intended to,” said Pam Goodfellow, consumer insights director at Prosper Insights & Analytics, which conducted the research for the NRF. “Compared to a recession-era consumer, consumers are certainly in a better spending mindset than they were. I think we can infer that spending confidence is rising.”

Yes, there are back-to-school caveats

But there are caveats. You knew there would be caveats. Drill down a little into the shopping enthusiasm and you’ll find that some of it is a result of pent-up demand after tightening up on spending last year, Davis said.

“After taking a year off on some of those necessities, the jeans might be too tight this year and the glue sticks might be dry and it’s time for a new iPad,” she said. “And that means that a lot of families are going to be heading to the stores and online for back to school.”

Davis also warned that assuming a back-to-school spending bump is a sign that holiday spending will be robust is a dangerous proposition.

“What’s different about back to school is that this generally is not a hugely experiential or discretionary holiday,” she said. “It’s much more transactional. When you look at back-to-school vs. the holiday season — which does tend to be more experiential, much more discretionary and also has a much bigger population (of shoppers) — you need to put the two in context a little bit.”

But no question this is the start of a sprint. Back-to-school marks the second biggest season for the nation’s retailers — second only to, yes, the holiday shopping season, which generates more than eight times the revenue.

 

Back-to-school is a shaky holiday spending indicator

The truth is, the two big seasons are beginning to merge together as consumers increasingly monitor digital sites for the best deals with little regard for the calendar. The back-to-school season will easily run into late September or even October, with nearly 3 percent of respondents telling the NRF they won’t start their school shopping until after classes start.

And the shift of holiday shopping earlier and earlier into November has been well documented in recent years, pointing to a holiday rush that is full-on well before Black Friday.

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While extrapolating spending habits from one season to the next is an uncertain science, Prosper’s Goodfellow told me after the briefing that some of this year’s back-to-school trends are likely to carry through the holiday season:

  • The continued migration to online shopping: 46 percent of those in the NRF survey said they would buy school supplies and clothes online, up from 35.6 percent last year. The NRF’s Davis said the figure was the highest it’s ever been. Again no surprise, but look for online — and particularly mobile traffic and conversions — to move higher again this holiday season. Retailers should be ready for the digital crowds.
  • The increased emphasis on “early-bird shopping:” Seven of 10 respondents said they would start shopping three weeks before school started, an increase of 20 percent, Goodfellow said. “It’s something we’ve seen over the past years,” she said in the briefing. “And it’s something that could be a trend leading into the holiday season as well.” New shopping habits are changing the shape of seasonal shopping, with early shopping spikes in November, even before Black Friday. All of which means new ways of thinking about inventory and promotions for retailers.
  • The embrace of free shipping and an increase in buy-online-and-pick-up-in-store: More than 54 percent of the respondents said they would buy something online and pick it up in a brick-and-mortar store this year, up nearly 6 percentage points from last year. “I think that’s definitely an opportunity for brick and mortar retailers during the holiday season.”

Maybe all this talk of holiday trends has you thinking: Hold on. It’s July. Let’s get through the back-to-school season first. For better or worse, that’s a luxury that retailers simply can’t afford.

Photo of back-to-school kids by Mike Cassidy. Cover photo of classroom by the U.S. Department of Education published under Creative Commons license. SlideShare and chart courtesy of the National Retail Federation.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.