Is It Too Soon for Retailers to Go Back to School?

Discussion
Jul 09, 2013

Here in New Jersey, thanks to Sandy, it has been only a couple of weeks since many school districts finished their academic years. But that hasn’t had any effect on retailers’ ad plans as many have already begun their back-to-school (BTS) campaigns. Retailers looking to get an early start on a key selling period is nothing new, but the question becomes, how soon is too soon?

"In seven and a half years, I’ve never once seen so much emphasis put on back-to-school before July 4," Kathy Grannis, a spokesperson for the National Retail Federation (NRF), told Advertising Age.

The BTS season is the second biggest shopping season of the year, according to research conducted by BIGinsight for NRF. Sales are projected to grow to $83.8 billion this year even as 77 percent (down from 80 percent inn 2012) of consumers say the economy will have an effect on what they purchase this year.

Not everyone was as quick to advertise their deals for BTS. A report on The Consumerist website pointed to the message on Amazon.com’s landing page before July 4, which read, "Shopping for back-to-school supplies already? We hate to tell you… you’re early." The message is now down.

A RetailWire poll last July found that 43 percent thought mid-July was the ideal time for retailers to start their BTS push while 28 percent thought August was when merchants should get started. Twenty-one percent thought July 4 was the date marker to begin promoting BTS.

Has back-to-school shopping changed in recent years?
Do retailers that begin promoting back-to-school before July 4 have an advantage over those who wait until later?

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19 Comments on "Is It Too Soon for Retailers to Go Back to School?"


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Paula Rosenblum
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

I suppose we should count ourselves grateful that there IS a Back to School event. Otherwise, we’d probably be seeing the Holiday promotions beginning now.

More seriously, back-to-school just isn’t what it used to be. Down in Miami, school starts in early August. What the heck would someone buy besides school supplies? It’s too hot to wear anything interesting.

In Denver, it has another cadence, and in the Northeast, I believe it’s still actually, as I recall, the week after Labor Day. So the longer answer is “it depends when school actually starts.” Plus, given the hellacious weather across much of the country, maybe shopping is a good diversion this year. When it’s 120 outside, or monsoon season, perhaps shopping and a movie is a viable alternative.

However, if you put the whole thing in context, it’s just another part of the hyper-promotional cycles we’ve gotten ourselves into as an industry. “Dense clouds, but no rain”…the sales numbers don’t end up any higher…they’re just stretched out longer.

Debbie Hauss
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

It seems like all seasonal shopping is earlier and earlier every year. As soon as the fireworks smolder, binders and highlighters begin to be promoted; as soon as the bell rings for the first day of school, pumpkins, candy and costumes are all the rage; as soon as Junior recovers from his post-Halloween stomach ache, we have to get the holiday shopping list ready. In our hearts we know it’s always too early, but the brands and retailers make it tough to fight off the urge to shop.

I don’t really think retailers that start promoting pre-July 4 are going to have an advantage, unless they plan a very unique strategy.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

It’s all up to the customer. Shoppers will vote with their feet, and will choose whether Christmas trees in October and back to school advertisements that arrive two weeks after school lets out are appropriate. Nordstrom has gotten loads of positive and free press for its “just say no” attitude toward out-of-season promotions.

Adrian Weidmann
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

Given the fact that BTS represents the second largest shopping period of the year, retailers will continually stretch their opportunities to extract buying opportunities from their shoppers. School supplies are still convenient and timely purchases that will be made in-store, and won’t be threatened by online purchases. The retailers that begin these promotions early are certainly taking advantage of spontaneous purchases for every shopping visit.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

I think Paula nailed it—”Dense clouds. No rain.”

I suppose the idea is that since the sales numbers are more or less static, the first one in gets a disproportionate share of the spoils. That is, after all, why we start “Holiday” sales in September, or is it August?

At any rate, who—beside retailers—is thinking about back-to-school in July? Certainly not the kids and—therefore I suspect—not the parents.

We can keep pushing seasons back earlier and earlier, or we can figure out more inventive ways to grow the pie. The right choice seems obvious.

Frank Riso
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

There are so few regional retailers left in the United States that most sales programs are more nationwide then in the past years. This means that since schools open in many parts of the country in August, the back to school shopping season needs to start earlier. In the New York metropolitan area, schools reopen in September, so it looks like a much too early start. I think we will see more retailers start their promotions now that the holiday is over.

Max Goldberg
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

Back-to-school shopping, like Christmas, seems to kick off earlier each year. Retailers must realize gains from launching early, much to the chagrin of students, who don’t want to be reminded in early July that school will soon start again.

Personally, I wish retailers would hold their BTS ads until late July, just as I wish they would hold Christmas advertising until November 1. But that’s just wishful thinking.

Dick Seesel
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

Frank Riso is correct: Schools that start in early August in the South have a different mindset than schools in the Northeast and elsewhere that begin after Labor Day. And BTS is rightfully treated as a two-month shopping season, not a sudden rush for school supplies at the very end. The “college dorm” business has also changed the nature of BTS timing.

Most importantly, retailers recognize that they can’t sell true fall apparel until the temperature changes, not just the calendar. Most store have figured out the importance of delivering “transitional” assortments of shorts, tees and polos at this time of year.

Tom Redd
Guest
8 years 11 months ago
BTS is a time period located in a different section of the shopper’s mind. Okay, before you skip this comment, hear my theory. Shoppers of different ages have segments of their right brain reserved for retail. This is the Front Retail Lobe (FRL). In that area—the FRL—are all of the elements that influence the shopper’s logic center and convinces them to BUY. So, there is an area reserved for BTS. It changes in shape as a shopper matures. BTS is a light BUY influencer in the summer and as September gets closer it is a major BUY influencer. Okay, so when to promote BTS? All year long, with a lift in the late summer based on geography. Why all year? School is a major image development space for kids and your adults (and some parents). Thus promoting in the right way—around the the student’s self-image—is a way to keep BTS goods’ turns up after they peak. School is a major part of the younger kids FRL, so leverage it. They are the ones who own… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

There are no laws against being early for a seasonal promotion! When does Christmas Holiday selling start these days?! Retailers both online and offline need to capture every shopper that they can. Jumping into BTS earlier each year is only one way to accomplish that.

Remember, some of the very consumable items will need to actually be repurchased by the time school finally rolls around. It’s the same situation as with buying Halloween candy in September.

Gene Detroyer
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

These themed promotions do border on ridiculous. No, they are ridiculous. My grand-daughter just finished school on June 26. So as parents are thinking about summer activities, camps, vacation, et al, they get bombarded by BTS?

The only thing this accomplishes is cutting margins. The thinking is bizarre.

Robert DiPietro
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

It’s not that they start before July 4th, but more relative to when school starts. The start of school sweeps the nation like a wave starting earlier in the South and West then rolling to the Northeast.

As a parents in the Northeast whose kids just got out of school June 28th, it seems silly to start now as we just finished. That said, the retailer who has the promotion first may lure away a customer from a competitor.

Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D.
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

Wow! Think of all the kids having their summer vacation ruined with thoughts of back to school right after the 4th of July! Does stretching the sale periods longer really increase sales or just flatten the sales curve over a longer time period. Everyone is so worried about losing sales to their competitors that they each try to jump in just a bit earlier so the sales periods keep growing. What % of your consumers are procrastinators? They may really appreciate fresh sales and unpicked-over shelves a little later.

Lee Kent
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

Once upon a time, BTS was about a change in season as well as getting kids back into more classic attire. Not so much these days. School starts in August and that is hardly Fall. Also, kids play in shorts and tee shirts and guess what, they also wear the same to school.

I suppose when it comes to school supplies and not fashion, parents may opt to shop whenever the deals are offered. In that light the early bird may get the worm.

Otherwise, who wants to be shopping for Fall clothes in July? I don’t see it!

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

Too early? I’m not sure: are they advertising for BTS 2013-4 or 2014-5???

Lee Peterson
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

Why not start promoting Christmas in October? Oh yeah, we do. It’s all a little nutty to me as I don’t believe the promotions reflect a good back-to-school strategy as much as they do consumers’ appetites for cheap stuff.

People still buy things in season, as some of the teen retailers realized years ago; shorts sell for BTS, sweaters sell in spring (Feb, that is) and swim suits still sell in May. So, if it’s just about a sale, why not just call it that? Is a sale before the 4th of July a BTS sale? Doubt it.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
8 years 11 months ago

Interesting topic and timely for me today. I just returned from an Office Depot store in the greater Ft. Lauderdale area. The entrance was filled with assorted back to school items greeting customers as they walked in. As I was leaving two mothers with their school age children were coming in to start getting what they needed. Neither the mother nor the children looked too pleased to be doing this shopping so early. But this is better than starting to hear about Black Friday sales.

Janet Dorenkott
Guest
Janet Dorenkott
8 years 11 months ago

Retailers did the same thing for Christmas last year, they started before Thanksgiving. I don’t know who’s making the decisions, but once they’ve been made, other retailers have to follow suit. But as a mom, I can tell you the last thing a kid wants to do is shop for school clothes when they just got out of school. On top of that, my kids grew half an inch during the summer. So my personal opinion is they have no advantage.

Christopher Krywulak
Guest
Christopher Krywulak
8 years 11 months ago

I think back-to-school shopping has changed in recent years due to the simple fact of increased product availability via online merchants like Amazon. Back in the day, you didn’t shop for BTS items until they appeared in printed flyers in your mailbox or on store shelves and displays. Now, all you have to do is visit a store’s website to be reminded of the BTS deals available to you and indeed, the promos are popping up earlier and earlier these days.

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