Back-To-School Shopping Season Now Lasts All Summer

Surveys Project Higher Spending and More Online Activity, Bricks & Mortar Stores Are Still the Favorite Destination. Watch for Retail Trends Ahead.

It seems today’s back-to-school shopping season begins minutes after the kids are set free for the summer. What was once a harried weekend of gathering supplies and buying new jeans and sneakers now stretches from June until the post-Labor Day period. Value-driven shoppers, informed and empowered by the Internet, are taking their time selecting the right item at the best price – even if that means stretching the traditional shopping season. As Dallas Lawrence, SVP at the ad firm Rubicon Project, says, “The consumer is actually taking control of when back-to-school shopping starts. They’re not waiting for the two weeks where retailers say ‘Here’s the best deal.’”

B-T-S Surveys Suggest the Outlook is Bright for 2015

With the back-to-school buying period second only to the holiday shopping season in bottom line impact, retailers and retail real estate companies are focused on upcoming sales activity. Leading consumer surveys conducted early this summer say optimism is in order. According to a recent National Retail Federation poll, 86 percent of participating consumers plan to spend more or the same on their back-to-school purchases than last year. In Rubicon Project’s latest study, 1,000 participating parents of children K-12 said they plan to spend more for the upcoming school year, with an average tab of $873 per student. Parents of the college-bound in the same study said they’ll spend upwards of $1,100 per student. The International Council of Shopping Centers’ back-to-school survey also found that wallets might be opening wider, with 67 percent of parents planning to spend more on school-related purchases than last year. This increase in the number of shoppers planning to increase their B-T-S spending represents the largest jump since 2012. Deloitte, however, cautions against too much optimism. Their annual back-to-school survey offers a different take on the season. Their data indicates spending by parents of K-college students will remain flat in 2015, a sobering prospect given that 2014’s spending showed the slowest growth since 2009.

Bricks and Mortars Projected to Dominate, but Online is a Major Player

According to ICSC’s research, 85 percent of back-to-school purchases will be made in bricks and mortar stores. Discounters will be in the top spot, with office supply stores and department stores tied for second place. Dollar Tree stores in busy Levin-managed locations such as Clifton Plaza (NJ), Hamilton Plaza (NJ) and a new store at Warren Plaza (NJ) are geared up for the season. Dollar General locations at Capitol Plaza (PA) and Union City Plaza (NJ) stand to benefit from that chain’s partnership with Operation Homefront’s Back to School Brigade, a campaign to collect school supplies for military families and drive store traffic as well. Staples in Fairground Plaza (NJ) and Office Depot in Rutgers Plaza (NJ), among other Levin locations, stand to benefit from aggressive chain-wide promotions and couponing programs.

Though physical stores are shoppers’ go-to place for back-to-school, online is a potent purchasing influencer. According to Deloitte, nearly half of every dollar spent on apparel during B-T-S 2014 was digitally influenced. This season could be even bigger for digital. Eighty percent of smartphone owners in Deloitte’s survey said they plan to use their digital devices in their back-to-school shopping – up six percent over 2014. Mobile will lag, however, in completing transactions, with only 29 percent of surveyed shoppers saying they will make a purchase via their smartphones. Digital wallets and mobile payment apps are still early-stage technologies, but well worth watching.

What about online purchases? Seventeen percent of Rubicon’s survey respondents say they will make their back-to-school buys online, with seven percent saying they will use a website but opt for in-store delivery. A good opportunity for bricks and mortar venues to score some in-store sales, says ICSC.

Major Slice of B-T-S Shoppers’ Dollars Will Go for Tech vs. Apparel But Social Media May Have Minimal Impact on Purchasing Decisions

Following a growing retail trend, the majority of back-to-school budgets will be devoted to tech products: laptops, tablets, and mobile phones. Rubicon’s study reports that K-12 households expect to spend $400, almost double the amount on apparel. The B-T-S season is fast becoming the time to upgrade or change mobile phone plans and this trend is expected to continue.

And what about social media? Will the power of Facebook, Instagram and Vine impact what’s bought for back-to-school this year? Deloitte’s survey queried parents of K-12 students on this. The answer may come as a surprise, with only 10 percent saying they would factor social into their decisions – down from 18 percent last season. As might be expected though, the picture changed among the back-to-college set. 51 percent of the students (who are definitely deciders) and 22 percent of their parents said social channels will play a big role.