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How Retailers Can Capitalize on Back-to-School Triggers, Trends

Summer vacation may be the only thing on most students’ minds right now, but for retailers and parents, it’s already high time to start thinking about back-to-school.

The months leading up to the start of the school year are still peak season for parents to stock up on kid’s gear and clothes for the classroom, even as other traditional shopping holidays have flattened out somewhat over time, and we’ve seen more and more shoppers adopt a buy-now-wear-now mentality.

In fact, according to Deloitte’s annual survey, total back-to-school spending is expected to reach $27.6 billion for 2018, or $510 per household, a slight increase from last year’s $501 spend. With the strong economy, rising wages and healthy consumer confidence (hit somewhat last month by trade war fears), retailers are looking forward to the second biggest shopping period of the year.

The season itself is also getting longer—in Hawaii and parts of Indiana and Arizona, students will be back at their desks in late July, while in the Northeast, most kids will still be on summer break until Labor Day, pushing parents’ shopping trips to later in the season.

Back-to-school sales tax holidays—always a major motivator in getting shoppers into stores, according to experts—kick off in earnest in Alabama the weekend of July 20, with Mississippi and Tennessee following soon after.

“It’s pretty early right now on selling,” said Patty Leto, senior vice president of children’s at The Doneger Group. “Floors are just being set. I think most retailers are trying to do a regional approach. Where schools go back a little earlier, they’re more set than maybe they are in the northeast.” Many retailers are holding off on fully converting floors to fall merchandise until the weather cools, a strategy that caters to the contemporary parent who isn’t beholden to the traditional retail calendar.

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“You have transitional and lighter weight goods in fall colors that are going to give the feel that the floor has changed and we’re moving into fall, but that the child can wear now to go back to school,” said Leto, comparing it to past years when retailers had “all this heavyweight stuff coming in and just sitting there because nobody could wear it for another two or three months.”

While department stores are still the top destination for consumers shopping for back-to-school items, according to the National Retail Federation, they have stiff competition from e-commerce. Brick-and-mortar retailers therefore must deliver on the promise of an elevated in-store experience, particularly for millennial parents and school-age, Gen-Z kids.

“One thing I can tell you about this generation of shoppers now is they do not suffer mediocrity,” said Gina Ashe, CEO of ThirdChannel, a retail intelligence company. “[Retailers] can’t have things be dirty or damaged, or have lots of empty slots in their displays, or have items in places where consumers can’t find them. They can’t have long wait lines, whether to purchase things or to return things. Consumers are not forgiving of that anymore at all. They vote with their feet and they will leave and they don’t come back.”

Retailers and brands alike also need to be prepared to educate and entertain shoppers along the purchase journey, Ashe said. Families often come into stores during the back-to-school season so kids can try on items and get the right fit, but also so they can learn about the best products to buy, whether that’s a graphing calculator or a new pair of performance sneakers.

Beyond mastering the basics, retailers have found success incorporating experiential elements like photo booths, party rooms or design bars that let kids pick out appliqués for T-shirts and backpacks. “The brick-and-mortar stores have really had to start rethinking their buy because of this trend with the millennial shopper,” said Louise Connor, president of The Showroom, which represents global children’s wear brands in the U.S. “One thing that some of the newer stores are doing, and even some of the older stores who are really trying to be nimble and flexible to capture the customer… is they’re trying to create these environments that are destinations for shoppers.”

Of course, experience alone can’t carry a store: it has to have product that consumers want to buy. This season, that means plenty of activewear and athleisure to meet shoppers’ demands for comfort. “The market gets more casual every season it seems,” Connor said. “In girls’ and boys’—particularly in boys’—the trend continues to be driven by comfort, by softness, by easy silhouettes.”

It also means denim, graphic tees for girls (particularly featuring empowering messages and details like knotted hems), and striped sweaters as we get closer to fall, said Leto. Among the biggest trends this season are the throwback ’90s influence that’s pervading all of fashion, a Western influence for older girls (“think rustic, pretty colorations with an emphasis on florals”), and a cozy, outdoor aesthetic that’s expected to pick up in Q3 with an influx of sherpa and fleece, she said.

Christine McCarthy, owner of children’s apparel consultancy CMSM LLC, also points to accessories as a bright spot in the season’s offerings: “Backpacks, pencil cases, water bottles, you name it, the accessories are selling for back-to-school. We can’t keep ours in stock as far as reorders upon reorders.” In particular, she says, Iscream’s colorful, printed backpacks and lunch boxes are selling very well for the younger set, along with Bari Lynn’s novelty hair accessories.