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Back-to-School Special

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has some pretty vivid memories of back- to-school shopping: getting dragged out alongside my mother to buy new outfits and a few No. 2 pencils. Now, it seems like everyone in the retail world is finding a way to join the party.

In recent years, a number of new and perhaps unexpected retailers have thrown their hats into the back-to-school ring in some interesting and creative ways. In a space that used to be reserved for a fairly select group of retailers (primarily child and teen apparel retailers and larger discount stores), the entry of some new national names has shaken up the back-to-school landscape.

Today, specialty retailers are joining mass merchants and apparel retailers in the back-to-school pool. While the degree to which they have done so successfully is up for debate — and the quality of execution varies significantly from one brand to the next — it’s an unmistakable trend. I think what’s happening is that many specialty retailers have concluded that they need to come up with their own back-to-school angle if they are going to tap into the annual late-summer/early-fall shopping frenzy. For the average family, that commercial activity is no small expense: the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) reports that “the average household expenditure on all types of back-to-school items is expected to be about $285 this year,” with 84% of consumers planning to spend the same or more than they did last year.

It’s no surprise to see mass merchants like Target and Wal-Mart deploying extensive back-to-school promotions, marketing initiatives and collateral materials. Both brands have special website sections, promotions, and special resources for both back-to-school and back-to-college shopping. What is more of an eye-opener is what a company like Bed Bath & Beyond has done. The Shop for College section on the Bed Bath & Beyond website (which is prominently featured as one of three main tabs on the site’s homepage) includes a detailed shopping checklist, school-themed retail categories — sleep, eat, wash, study, organize, relax — a series of 12 videos on college- and dorm-themed practical solutions, a school locator, a dorm room decorating organizer, and even a college gift registry!

Bed Bath & Beyond might be the specialty retailer who has made the most significant effort to carve out their own space in the back-to-school shopping landscape, but they are far from the only one. Ikea has introduced its own promotions and dedicated website section, complete with a back-to-school checklist and thoughtfully presented shopping categories. Apple recently launched its new Back to School promotion, which rewards “qualified educational purchasers iTunes Store/App Store/iBookstore gift cards of up to $100 with the purchase of a new Mac, iPad, or iPhone.” The initiative also includes in-store signage and collateral materials such as a brochure-style “checklist” of back-to-school items and accessories. Best Buy is offering special discounts on laptops, PCs and printers. Even Pottery Barn Kids’ offerings include a detailed article outlining all the different things parents can do to help prepare their kids for school.

I think part of this push on the part of retailers to enter the back-to-school marketplace is a reflection of the fact that what you buy for your back-to-school needs has changed somewhat (electronics occupy an increasingly significant piece of the back-to-school pie, for example), but I think it’s mostly just intelligent, aggressive and sophisticated marketing and product positioning.

While more deals and back-to-school options would seem to be a good thing for parents and kids, it might be an even better development for brick-and-mortar retail in general. Bold and creative moves like this are what retailers have to do to stay relevant and capture more market share. And while it might seem like they might simply siphon off some of the back-to-school dollars that would otherwise be spent at traditional back-to-school retailers, I don’t think that’s much of a worry. The kinds of retailers and products pushing to enter the marketplace aren’t necessarily direct competition, and I see most of this new retail activity as created potential: new dollars that might otherwise have stayed unspent in the wallets and pocketbooks of parents.

Pop quiz: What’s your take on the back-to-school trends? Which of these retailers would you give a passing grade to, and which do we need to send home with “Needs Improvement” on their report cards? Leave a comment below or send your thoughts to Jeff@JeffGreenPartners.com to keep the conversation going.


Click here for past columns by Jeff Green.