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The Booming Multi-Billion Dollar Back-to-School Retail Industry and Its Evolving Customer Base

First Posted: Jul 24, 2015 04:03 PM EDT
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The booming back-to-school retail market is only preceded by the holiday market in terms of spending.

"Back to school," "school supplies," "school shopping," and "back to school sales" were the top search terms in 2013, and 27 percent of businesses launched back-to-school marketing activities as early as May of that year to preemptively meet the needs of their evolving customer base. 

The back-to-school season is just around the corner, and the multi-billion dollar industry thrives on the purchasing of functional items such as backpacks and supplies, as well as other essentials, such as clothing, which adhere to well-established and fresh trends. According to the National Retail Federation, spending reached $72.5 billion in 2013. Last year, the average family spent $669, however families are expected to spend less this year, approximately $630 on back-to-school supplies.

While the back-to-school season is still forthcoming, 23 percent of parents with kids in grades K-12 have already begun their school shopping, said a Rubicon Project survey. Also approximately 82 percent of Hispanic parents visit big box retail stores, such as Target and Walmart, where they expect to find savings. Often, parents and children are drawn to these companies through social and traditional media. For example, this year Target connected with social media child stars and Latino break-dancers Mace Maya and dance star Maddie Ziegler to attract to engage Gen Z kids and their parents. Employing child stars is a smart move because children strongly influence their parent's purchasing decisions. 

Approximately 73 percent of parents have their children accompany them when they make purchases for back-to-school, which means that a majority of children likely have sway over parents when they're shopping.

According to research from the International Council of Shopping Centers, more than in the past four years, parents in the U.S. plan to increase back-to-school spending. Chain Store Age reported, 67 percent of parents and back-to-school shoppers plan to spend more than they did last year, compared to 50 percent in 2014 and 39 percent in 2013. Also, families, on average, have increasing spent more on school items over the past decade.  

The survey showed that 83 percent of purchases will involve physical stores, including 7 percent that will be made online and picked up in-store. Additionally, 79 percent of people who said that they plan to purchase online for in-store pick ups, and they're likely to purchase additional items once they're in the store.

Although most will visit physical stores, nearly 80 percent of respondents reported that they plan to use a mobile device to enhance their shopping experience. Forty-four percent will use their phone to compare prices; 28 percent will use digital couples; 26 percent will use digital coupons; 26 percent will check ratings and reviews; 24 percent will check inventory and availability of items; and 17 percent will text or email family and friends for second opinions on items.

Discount stores remain a favorite for 77 percent of respondents, although 40 percent will visit office supply stores, 29 percent will visit online-only retailers, 38 percent will visit department stores and 25 percent of shoppers will visit appeal stores.

International Council of Shopping Centers' research contradicts, the National Retail Federation, who told CNBC in mid-July that "total spending for school-age and college-bound students is expected to hit $68 billion this year, a drop of 9 percent compared to last year's forecast." The decline is due to "an anticipated 11 percent decrease in college spending, which makes up about two-thirds of back-to-school revenue." The better outcome for marketers depends on the how many back-to-school purchasers pick up big-ticket items, such as technology. The National Retail Federation expects a 7 percent dip in electronics spending from the K-12 group and a 15 percent decline from college students.

Eighteen states currently offer sales tax holidays, and Ohio and South Carolina are among the many states to hold a state tax holiday on back-to-school purchases of clothing, shoes and supplies. The sales tax week normally takes place during the early weeks of August.

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