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Why Tracking Back-to-School Sales is Pointless, or any Traditional Selling Season for That Matter

It’s about that time when analysts start speculating on what the back-to-school season will mean for the apparel sector, but regardless of what the numbers end up being, there’s really a much larger story here that analysts aren’t looking at: consumers are no longer buying within the confines of specified shopping seasons. And all it takes is a trip to any store to see what’s happening.

Case in point, I made a quick trip to Bloomingdale’s on Lexington Avenue last weekend to pick up a white v-neck T-shirt to wear under a blazer.

Now, one might assume, since it is the peak of summer and since white T-shirts are a mainstay in every man’s wardrobe, that finding the staple would be simple. It wasn’t. But lucky for me, I found a shirt by Vince on the 40 percent off rack. I was pleasantly surprised to find what I consider to be a basic deeply discounted. The entire store was filled with fall product, but the idea of buying a long-sleeve knit or a fall jacket when it’s 85 degrees outside made no sense to me, not to mention, everything was full price.

So, several questions occupied my mind during my walk home: Why the big rush to push out summer product in the thick of summer? Why would I pay full price for something I won’t, and physically can’t, for another two or three months? Why was the item that I needed for that very night 40 percent off?

Well, in this messed up game called retail, I suppose nothing makes sense these days.

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I have vivid memories of my mother taking my brother and I back-to-school shopping at Kids R Us at the end of every summer. My mom would pick out all the clothes she thought would make us look “handsome.” In the early years, my grandmother would even join us. She always got us the more fashionable stuff, while my mom refused to buy anything that actually fit at the time because she believed we were always growing. By the time I was 12-years-old, she had me tripping in size 14 shoes because I would “grow into them.”

Anyway, I digress. It was a yearly ritual, and it added to the excitement of returning to school. That dresser filled with new T-shirts, jeans and fresh socks meant that I was ready to take on the second grade in style. Or at least that was what my mother told me.

As we approach another back-to-school season, I can’t help but wonder what has changed over the last 25 or so years since our summers at Kids R Us.

Retailers are still buying clothes and putting them in stores as though nothing has changed, but are families still waiting for the end of summer to do all of their shopping?

We live in an instant world. We thrive on instant gratification. Same day delivery isn’t fast enough. We need drones to deliver our Amazon packages the second a transaction is completed. Traditional online dating, as in engaging in a simple email exchange, is too slow. Now we have apps to let you know who is single and ready to mingle within a one-mile radius. Waiting for a movie to arrive in the mail, that sounds archaic. I instantly stream Netflix on my smart TV. Oh, and waiting for a cab? What does the word wait even mean? We Uber our rides.

And the world of apparel shopping has changed to suit. Retailers like Bergdorf Goodman will hand deliver a pair of shoes the very same day you wish to wear them. Need a fancy dress for a wedding but don’t want to buy it? No problem, you can rent it and have it delivered to your doorstep. Anything you could possibly want is available online, and you can price compare the hell out of it before making a final purchasing decision. It isn’t good enough that the product arrives quickly. Now it also has to be discounted. Overpaying is a shameful act these days.

The whole world has gone on sale since the financial crisis, well, almost. There are those products that remain untouched by discounts, like iPhones, Androids, Hermes Birkin bags and Beats by Dre headphones. I never got the “Buy a Nissan Maxima, Get a Sentra Free” offer in the mail either. And I never heard of Rolex having closeout sales, but we all seem to be okay with that because those who want, and can afford, true luxury will buy what they want, at any price, when they want it.

As a society we have become so attached to our gadgets that we must have the newest and the best the day it comes out, no matter the cost. The bigger issue nowadays is the wait in line outside the Apple store to get it.

Where does traditional clothing fit into this demanding world? Take out the super high-end luxury labels and there is one word that comes to mind: sale.

Barneys New York recently had an up to 75 percent off sale. Banana Republic was offering 40 percent off the entire store two weeks ago, and Zara is moving out its summer product at up to 70 percent off. The list goes on. If we can get these discounted prices on any given weekend of the year, what type of sale expectations have we created for back-to-school or Black Friday? Unrealistic and unsustainable, I would say.

The problem begins with how we buy today. We shop with a see now, buy now, wear now mentality. We don’t want anything to sit in our closet. We want to go shopping for tonight. Online retailers get that, but brick-and-mortar continues to buy as they did 25 years ago.

There is no reason for a family to take children shopping this August. They won’t have a good selection of the clothes they need for September, and they won’t want to buy sweaters for full price. With the exception of some states that have special tax free weekends, most consumers will stretch their purchases across the season. When it gets cold, they will go to the store and buy long-sleeve tops. When the holiday season begins, they will take advantage of the massive sales and buy new sweaters and fleece. When it gets chilly, and they realize their child has outgrown last year’s winter jacket, they will take the trip to the store, and if they are as lucky as I was at Bloomingdale’s last weekend, they will get one on sale.

If we continue to track back-to-school as a July to Labor Day selling period, we might be disappointed. The same can be said for holiday. It’s not to say we are spending less, we are just shopping less in the confines of these outdated selling periods.

I purchase most of my winter clothes in December, January and February. I have never, and would never, buy a sweater or a heavy jacket in July, but I do shop a lot, so much so that the stores themselves have trained me not to buy as soon as a new collection hits the floor.

For starters, I know its full price and that it will likely go on sale. If you try to scare me with the, It won’t be here when you come back, shtick, I’ll laugh. Instead, I wait a few weeks and come back when it goes on sale. And if by some slim chance it isn’t there, I’ll go online. After all, I already took a photo of the style number and now every store that carries that product online can fulfill my request. If I still can’t find it, I’ll insist it wasn’t meant to be and believe the shopping gods saved me from fashion disaster.

For the statisticians out there, my two cents on traditional back-to-school shopping is this: It will be extremely promotional, as that is the only way stores can entice shoppers to buy product before they actually need or want it. And this will lead to an even more promotional holiday season.

Since the state of the middle class has not improved much since the recession, price sensitivity will continue to be the name of the game. Those families who held off on large ticket purchases in the past few years are finally pulling the trigger and buying the cars and homes they weren’t able to buy a few years back. That’s great news for those industries, but bad news for clothing, which will take a backseat, and once again require heavy promotions to lure consumers.

Maybe I am way off in my thinking, but the solution to appeal to this new impatient customer might be as simple as a plain white T-shirt: Price and promote items when consumers like to shop for them, and start tracking sales based on that need. Everything may start to make a whole lot more sense.