NRF’s back-to-school and back-to-college surveys were released several weeks ago. The bottom line? There’s good news, and there’s really good news: back-to-college spending will remain unchanged (remember, it stayed strong a year ago when the bottom fell out pretty much everywhere else) and back-to-school spending will bounce back to ’08 levels. All told, spending for BTC and BTS will bring in about $67 billion, once you add in our new college categories of food, personal care and gift cards.
While the overarching numbers are always important, they only tell part of the story. Here are some of the most interesting trends and nuggets I found when digging through the full report of data, provided by our partners at BIGresearch.
#1: Think K-12 is the big kahuna? Think again. I’m all about the younger ones – who isn’t? But with this huge focus on traditional back-to-school spending, we’re kind of missing the boat. For years, we’ve seen college spending outpace that of younger students and parents, though this group is almost an afterthought among reporters, analysts, and even some retailers. Why should we be paying more attention? Here’s a statistic that will blow you away: Spending on back-to-college merchandise ($45.8 billion) is twice as high as spending on back to school ($21.4 billion). Memo for the future: Ignore the post-high school crowd at your own peril – they’ve got money to spend!
#2: Don’t discount dads! In retail, we’re always talking about women: how much they spend, where they shop, ways to get their attention. But when it comes to back-to-school spending this year, dads are where the money is. According to our survey, dads of children in grades K-12 will spend $671 on clothing, shoes, electronics and school supplies. (Moms, on the flip side, will spend $545, or 25% less.) That’s good news for department stores, specialty stores and online retailers, where dads are more likely to shop. What’s the reason? Could be that dads are feeling a little more confident in the economy, aren’t planning to go all over town looking for the best deal, or just have a harder time saying no to their kids than moms. Whatever the reason, an emphasis on dads this year could pay off in a big way.
#3: The recession is over? Shoppers didn’t get the memo. Yes, the economy is in much better shape than a year ago. Yes, everyone from President Obama to Ben Bernanke has declared an end to the Great Recession. But consumer shopping behavior is hardly back to boom-time levels. According to the survey, the economy is still going to impact the back-to-school season in a major way: more parents say they’ll be buying store-brand or generic merchandise – which is actually good news for retailers with robust private label offerings – and more will be comparison shopping online. (The up-side? Fewer parents say they’ll be making do with last year’s items – after all, second graders probably can’t wear the same pair of jeans they wore to kindergarten two years ago.)
Another particularly interesting finding from the economic portion of the survey deals with lifestyle changes parents are planning to make this year. More parents in this year’s survey say the economy is impacting the type of school their child attends (8.1% this year vs. 5.7% last year) and 13.3% said they’re cutting back on extra-curricular activities or sports, up from 11.4% last year. That could have a big impact on everyone from manufacturers of school uniforms to sporting goods retailers. Why the cutbacks, when all agree that last year’s economic situation was much worse than this year’s? Maybe mom and dad could swing private school or ballet lessons last year, but now that their situation is more long-lasting or permanent, they’re pulling back in more calculated ways.
One more economic side note before moving on: we see many of these same trends play out among the college crowd, with one notable exception. This year, fewer students will be living at home as a result of the economy, which bodes well for both electronics and dorm furnishings. Students who are still holed up with mom and dad wouldn’t need their own computer or extra-long twin sheets, but the bills get higher when you leave the nest.
#4: The early bird grabs the deal. It’s not unusual for some parents to think about sending their kids back to school as soon as the final bell rings in May or June, but this year parents seem eager to begin back-to-school shopping early. In fact, 21.6% of parents plan to start back-to-school shopping at least two months before school starts, which is the highest number since we started conducting this survey in 2003. Another 47.6% of parents say they’ll start shopping at least three weeks before school starts. Of course, much of this could be based on the economy – parents want to spread out their spending or are planning to spend weeks if not months finding the best deal on a new computer. Regardless, parents will not wait until the last minute to start shopping this year, even if they’re going to wait until the last minute to pull the trigger on buying.
#5: Want to find the big spenders? Go online. Parents who are spending on the web for back to school this year will spend $266 more than parents who will only shop in stores. And with an increasing number of parents using the Internet to comparison shop before getting in their car and heading to the mall, retailers need to ensure their website is as much a representative of the company’s overall brand as their stores. (Check out the blog post by Shop.org’s Research Director Fiona Swerdlow on the topic. This is fascinating stuff.)
#6: Price is important, but it isn’t everything. I’ve heard so many retail CEOs talk about “value” this year that it’s hard to keep track of them all. While price may have been the end-all, be-all for purchasing decisions last year, parents have a bit more of a financial cushion this year to include quality, convenience and service into the mix when deciding what and where to buy. So instead of blindly grabbing the $6 blue jeans, moms and dads might be spending more on the pair with reinforced stitching or thicker denim in the hopes they last a little longer. The computer with a larger amount of memory might not be the cheapest, but it could enable parents to go several more years before having to invest in another one. That’s value.
#7: Freshmen aren’t the cash cow of college this year. If there’s one rule that a back-to-college retailer lives by, it’s this: Freshmen outspend everybody, especially on electronics. But as with a handful of other well-known assumptions, that’s not the case in 2010. According to our survey, freshmen spending will drop by an astonishing 19% – from $1,086 last year to just $882 this year – and will be only slightly higher than that of average college students. Also, freshmen will spend far less on electronics ($280) than a year ago ($439). This dramatic shift can be hard to understand – maybe freshmen plan to forgo the laptop for awhile and use the school’s computer lab, or cart away mom’s and dad’s old hand-me-down desktop until they’re sure of what they need. Maybe they’re just totally out of touch with how much college is going to cost. Whatever the reason, freshmen won’t be bankrolling college spending this year.
#8: College guys aren’t only buying electronics. Remember trend #2 about not discounting dads? The same goes for college guys. When looking at the survey’s breakouts by gender, men will spend 35% more than women on back-to-college merchandise ($965 vs. $713). Sure, you say, that makes sense – guys spend more on electronics, and those purchases tend to be more expensive. Well that’s true – guys do spend more on electronics than gals ($284 vs. $192) – but I might not be the only one shocked that men are also planning to spend more than women in traditional “female” categories: clothing, personal care and dorm décor. Clearly, there’s more than one college guy in America trying to make a good impression on someone this year.
#9: Kids are spending through their parents. There’s been a lot of talk about how historically high teenage unemployment may – or may not – impact back-to-school spending. While it’s never good news for teen retailers when high schoolers don’t have any of their own money to spend, there is a bright side. For starters, teens don’t do the lion’s share of spending for back to school anyway: the average teen will only spend about 30 bucks on BTS this year, which is comparable to previous years. And even though teens won’t be shelling out their own cold, hard cash, it doesn’t mean they’re not being heard: over 60% of parents say their children influence at least half of back-to-school purchases – on everything from jeans and school supplies to the all-important family computer. So basically, even though teens are having a hard time finding jobs this summer, they’re still doing a heck of a job spending their parents’ money.
#10: Beware of over-emphasizing the holiday implications. Ah, the age-old question: Can we look at sales expectations for back to school and apply that to the holiday season? Yes…and no. Certainly some of the behaviors outlined above – like consumers using the web more to comparison shop or being willing to try private label products – will transcend into the holiday season. Retailers can and should pay close attention to many of those trends to tweak holiday plans. But we can’t just look at back to school as a crystal ball for the holiday season. It’s important to remember that back to school is a necessity for most parents: they have to buy their kids new clothes if last year’s don’t fit. They have to follow a teacher’s school supply list to the letter. College students have to fork over hundreds of bucks for books. When it comes to holiday spending, there’s a bit more wiggle room in each family’s budget – and a lot more people spending, which can dramatically alter results.
That said, the holidays and back to school will have some things in common this year: a shopper still struggling to understand the economy, retailers experimenting furiously to discover what makes people spend, and a guarantee that – even if you think you’ve got it all figured out – you don’t.