Households with school-age children (pre-school through 12th grade) don’t plan to spend more this year on back-to-school purchases than a year ago, and they’ve indicated they’ll spend an average of $650, versus $652 a year ago, according to the 21st annual survey conducted by Brand Keys, the New York-based brand loyalty and emotional engagement research consultancy.

Specifically, they plan to spend $270 on clothing; $120 on athletic and dress shoes; $80 on supplies; $160 on computers, electronics, tablets and smartphones, and $22 on books and study aids. That is similar to a year ago, according to Brand Keys. The survey included assessments from 8,500 households during the period from July 20 through July 26.

According to those surveyed, the breakdown of “preferred” retail categories versus last year indicated an anticipated use of all retail platforms. When asked where they plan to shop, the results were discount stores (99 percent); online (95 percent), specialty retailers (55 percent); department stores (55 percent); office supply (35 percent), and catalogues (20 percent).

The biggest increases in the choice of where and how they shopped were specialty apparel retailers (plus 21 percent), and department stores (plus 20 percent). Catalogues were down in mention (negative 10 percent), “although to be fair, some consumer purchases have just shifted from print catalogues to their digital counterparts,” said Robert Passikoff, founder and president of Brand Keys. Online (plus 2 percent) has, of course, been growing generally, but increased use of mobile outreach and advertising is likely responsible for this year’s growth for that platform specifically,” said Passikoff.

This year, the top 10 list of most popular retailers added Walgreen Co. and Sears, Roebuck and Co., with Target Corp. moving into the number-one spot, just ahead of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. In order, the top 10 retailers where those consumers surveyed planned to shop were Target, Walmart, Macy’s, CVS, Best Buy, TJ Maxx, Staples, Foot Locker, Sears and Apple stores. The top 10 e-tailers where they planned to shop were, in order, Amazon.com, Walmart.com, Target.com, Kohls.com, Macys.com, Zappos.com, Nike.com, Gap.com,Bestbuy.com and Overstock.com.

“It would appear that [Target’s] ‘cheap chic’ positioning is working,” said Passikoff. For e-tail brands, Target.com moved up the list from last year’s No. 10 spot to No. 3. Nike.com moved up, Overstock.com moved down, and eBay did not appear on this year’s top 10 list.

Passikoff noted that while consumer confidence has been moving in a positive direction this year, “it appears that parents are taking a hard look at what their children need for back-to-school. There’s always a need to restock in some areas because there’s no way to get around children’s growth spurts,” said Passikoff. About 50 percent of consumers said they had already bought and stockpiled necessities and supplies for the first day of school before August, up 15 percent from a year ago. Another 30 percent said they would wait for the summer sales. The remaining 20 percent said they’re waiting for the last minute.

“Retailers have spent more than a decade teaching consumers they can get things cheaper or for better value if they wait a little longer or look a little harder, and consumers have been fast learners,” said Passikoff. He also noted that bigger ticket items, like tablets, smartphones and computers, which historically have been purchased at the start of the school year, are now purchased throughout the year. “Parents aren’t upgrading a mobile device just because classes are starting,” said Passikoff.

Overall, he said one of the surprises of the survey’s results is that he would have expected an increase in consumer spending since consumer confidence has been rising. “This is the first time in half a decade where it’s been flat,” he said.

Another surprise is that he usually sees the lion’s share of the spend going to electronics and technology, but this year it’s clothing. He said that accounts for the growth in specialty and department stores, and the preponderance of department stores’ Web sites on the list of preferred e-tailers.

Meantime, Synchrony Financial’s latest read on the season has consumers expecting to spend the same or slightly more than they did last year.

And echoing prior reports on the b-t-s season, the bulk of purchases will involve value-driven shoppers seeking out bargains.

By category, the survey found that apparel and footwear garner the “largest expense for parents and account for approximately one-third of their total back-to-school spend, followed by electronics,” the researchers said in the report. “College students spend primarily on electronics, clothing and dorm-room items.”

Toni White, chief marketing officer at Synchrony, said “although the study found shoppers are confident and optimistic, their focus on value and time spent comparing prices online reinforces the importance for retailers to have integrated strategies that provide relevant offers and the best multichannel experience.”

The survey, which was conducted between July 7 and 14 by RTi Research for Synchrony, polled 2,000 people, including parents and college-aged students.

“Price is an overriding concern for parents, even though most report they plan to spend the same or more this year,” said the authors of the report. “More than half of parents with students in grades K-12 are likely to set a budget for back-to-school expenses. College students are focused on items they need — 83 percent plan to reuse where possible and replenish essentials, and 63 percent will refer to last year’s spending as a guideline.”

The survey also revealed that regardless of category, more than half of the respondents will look for deals online.

Value is the overwhelming driver when deciding where to shop, according to the study. The researchers said that the components of value include “competitive prices, deals and merchandise quality.” Convenient location, a variety of products offered and a flexible return policy were other important factors in the decision-making process as well as overall customer service.

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