Back-to-School: Boom or Bust?

Discussion
Jul 21, 2011
George Anderson

Depending on whom you believe, back-to-school spending will be somewhere between flat to up six percent or so over last year.

On the more optimistic side stands Customer Growth Partners. The research firm predicted a 6.2 percent increase for back-to-school spending, the biggest year-over-year growth for the period going back to 2006.

Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, told MarketWatch that June’s unexpectedly high numbers were evidence a change is coming. “People are beginning to spend again,” he said. “This augurs for a good back-to-school season and a good holiday season. We are seeing a rebound in discretionary spending.”

The NPD Group sees consumers following almost the exact patterns as last year when it comes to shopping. In fact, the same percentage plan to spend less (38 percent), the same (40 percent) and more (22 percent) as in 2010, according to their research. The lone distinction is that three percent plan to start shopping a little later this year.

As to what will get consumers to spend this year, the biggest reason behind the decision to purchase will be “value” (82 percent), followed by “required” (45 percent), “replacement” (30 percent), “child wanted it” (22 percent), “trendy/fashionable” (12 percent) and “influenced by friends” (two percent).

“While the differences in the numbers aren’t all that dramatic, there are dramatic indications of changes in consumption patterns,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst, The NPD Group, in a press release. “The study’s results clearly point out that consumers will be shopping later, looking for value, and searching out lower priced options.”

The National Retail Federation’s projections for back-to-school are slightly below last year’s. According to a survey conducted for the association by BIGresearch, families will spend an average of $603.63 this year compared to $606.40 last year.

“Families aren’t opposed to spending on what they need, but parents want their children to take a good look around at what they already have before deciding what to buy for back to school this year,” said Matthew Shay, NRF’s president and CEO, in a press release. “Retailers understand consumers are extremely focused on value and are taking this opportunity to offer substantial savings on merchandise.”

Nearly 44 percent said economic factors are behind their decisions to spend less. The survey found consumers plan to buy more store brands (39.9 percent), comparison shop online (29.8 percent), and look for sales (50.0 percent).

Discussion Questions: Considering the rise in commodity costs over the past year, is it possible that consumers will be able to buy what they need for back-to-school and still keep to 2010’s spending levels? Will retailers be put in a position to give the store away if they wish to compete?

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12 Comments on "Back-to-School: Boom or Bust?"


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Paula Rosenblum
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

Here’s the problem. Back-to-school just isn’t what it used to be, so I believe talking about apparel sales and back to school in the same breath is fantasy. It’s sort of frustrating to me, because these predictions are much ado about nothing.

In many places, including Florida, school starts in August. Very rarely does it start after Labor Day anywhere in the US, which it did pretty consistently back in the day. So the “season” is very stretched out. No one is going to buy new fall clothes in the summer. Plus, most schools don’t have particularly strict dress codes–especially not when the temperature is in the high 80s.

So apart from things like uniforms, books and electronics, I see no reason for consumers to go shopping. If the summer keeps up as hot as it has, kids will be headed to school in shorts and t-shirts.

Max Goldberg
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

For most consumers, the economy is still in the doldrums. As a result, they will spend as little as possible to get their children ready to go back to school. Items that are not necessities will not be purchased. And consumers will look for bargains for those items that must be purchased. Is anyone really surprised by this?

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
9 years 9 months ago

Spending on back-to-school items will rise above 2010 levels but the volume will be the same. Consumers with discretionary income will “grin and bear it.” Those hard pressed consumers on tight budgets will cringe and cut back.

Astute retailers will target consumers with most of today’s available dollars. They won’t allow themselves to give the store away. They will find avenues on which to compete.

Tony Orlando
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

If you do not price the back to school at very low margins, don’t bother getting into it. I put my stuff in shopping carts, and sell it out quick with margins in the 18-20% range, because everyone out there is giving the stuff away. I’m happy to make a quick buck, and it helps bring some folks in to buy steaks, and deli items as well. “Stack it high, price it low, and watch it go….”

Roy White
Guest
Roy White
9 years 9 months ago
Given the backdrop of 14 million plus unemployed and continued poor economic statistics, one would think that b-t-s might be a flop this year. But the bad economic news has been firmly embedded in our society for several years now, so that the overall landscape of consumer psychology is unlikely to be much different than in the previous couple of years. They sought value last year, and they will seek value this year. One issue raised by the NRF survey is that consumers will be starting b-t-s shopping later this year. That is not a cause for alarm; it’s a cause for changing strategy. Indeed, JCPenney has delayed their b-t-s promotions this year by a week. In addition, some reports indicate that department stores stand to do well in this year’s b-t-s season, with Macy’s, for example, raising their expectations for comp store sales growth to 6% for the current quarter from the original prediction of 4%. And the MarketWatch article indicates that of the 25 retailers reporting June numbers, 22 generated growth. I think… Read more »
Kim Barrington
Guest
Kim Barrington
9 years 9 months ago

BTS and BTC is my category. I’ve done planning and product assortments and placement in the big players. The assortments are there but the shopper isn’t. Basic is in.

BTC is probably where more discretionary dollars are spent than BTS, because the student has no doubt worked and saved up his/her own money to spend.

Roger Saunders
Guest
9 years 9 months ago
The NPD and BIGresearch surveys around Back-to-School are showing some different results. And, differences of opinion do make a horse race. The National Retail Federation figures are based on our May and June BIGresearch Consumer Intention & Actions (CIA) data. We’re listening to the forward-look perspective and plans of 8,500+ Adults each month, so it’s worthwhile to view a couple of patterns through the lens of the “Wisdom of the Crowd”: 1. In comparing purchasing plans over the next 90 days for Children’s Clothing, Adults 18+ are offering this view 14.9% will spend more on children’s clothing in 2011 compared to 13.2% planning to spend more last year. 28.3% will spend less this year vs. 31.6% last year. Commodity prices have pushed up clothing products, so most of that small increase in spend will be covering inflation. 2. Consumer Confidence is down on a year-over-year basis — 27.8% of Adults 18+ are Confidence / Very Confident of a strong economy in the next 6 months. That compares to 30.2% holding that view 12 months ago.… Read more »
Carol Spieckerman
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

I’m with Paula on the stretched out BTS “season” and wear-now realities. That said, I’m watching BTS closely because, while I don’t see the full impact of rising commodity prices hitting a crescendo until spring of 2012, BTS will mark the early runway and holiday will definitely not be business-as-usual.

Dione Lewis
Guest
Dione Lewis
9 years 9 months ago

It has been about 10 years since retailers have followed the back-to-school calendar. As an industry I do not believe we are following the demand of the consumer. When consumers are demanding swimsuits and shorts we are trying to sell them windbreakers and long-sleeve tees. Essentially we as retailers are cutting our profits in an economy that there is little room for error.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
9 years 9 months ago

Given everything that’s going on, my bet is for flat to down from YA. Most probably down as retailers opt to compete on price.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
Guest
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
9 years 9 months ago

I like the wide range of predictions for where spending for back-to-school will be this year. What this should do is inspire retailers to put their best foot forward and I don’t believe that is giving away the store. Some ideas if it is not too late:

1) Promote Store Brands – It differentiates you from the competitor and lets you provide value to the consumer while still making a profit.

2) Promote heavily to your most loyal customers. They already support your store so be sure and let them know you support them by sharing savings early. Giving this group a one day advance notice on the store savings could pay off huge.

3) Once you have them in the store, be sure you are well staffed with trained employees eager to help consumers and make the experience enjoyable. If you do that part right they will remember you and the experience when the holidays arrive.

Consumers, start your engines!

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

The question of course isn’t whether or not consumers are able to buy what THEY need, it’s whether or not they are able to buy what RETAILERS need…which is to say, will the numbers satisfy everyone? I don’t believe they will (particularly the many companies that have seen years of comp store declines and will need double digit increases simply to get back to where they were years ago); and at any rate, the fact that people are excited by “unexpectedly high numbers” underscores that no one really knows what’s going on.

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