Retailers helping parents fill back-to-school lists
Chicago — Dread might be too strong a word. But Kate Hunt’s feelings about back-to-school shopping aren’t far from those of kids who soon will have to give up lazy afternoons at the pool for long hours in the classroom.
The supply lists her first- and third-grade sons’ school sent home were simultaneously not specific enough — or too specific. One required eight folders, each a different color.
“There’s just so many rules,” said Hunt, of suburban Chicago, hoping to cross most items off the boys’ lists at the local Target on a recent Monday afternoon with as little hassle as possible.
You’d think it was a no-brainer to buy back-to-school items online, where there’s no line at checkout and price comparisons are easy. But for many families, the tradition of trekking to a store and pushing a cart loaded with pencils, notebooks, folder, tissue boxes, a protractor and a first-day outfit remains intact, one of the last strongholds in a fast-changing retail industry.
For some families, it’s a way to get kids excited about the upcoming year. Others are skeptical buying online would be any less of a chore.
“It feels like one of the few things that’s actually easier in the store,” Hunt said.
Back-to-school is the retail industry’s second-biggest shopping season, and families with children in kindergarten through high school are expected to spend an estimated $29.5 billion this year, according to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation.
But although the share of consumers who say they plan to shop online has grown in recent years, most of those dollars are still spent in stores.
More than 70 percent of last year’s back-to-school purchases were made in bricks-and-mortar stores, according to market research firm The NPD Group.
When it comes to apparel, Katy Mickelson, a mother of two from Chicago, said she still likes to touch and feel most items before buying. She also wants her kids — a son in second grade and daughter in preschool — to get the traditional back-to-school shopping experience she remembers.
Mickelson said she has fond memories of stocking up on new jeans and sweaters before the start of each year as a kid, and wants the same for Luke, 7, and Adelyn, 4.
“It gets them excited, the experience of getting something new and cool to show your friends, that lessens the sting of school a little,” she said.
Michelle Kwak, of Chicago, will likely buy her fifth-grade daughter’s backpack online, where there’s a wider selection of fun designs. But when it comes to the basics, it’s quicker to hit the stores, said Kwak, shopping at an area Wal-Mart — the first of three planned stops at nearby big box chains.
Supply lists often call for very specific items, and tracking down the right version on a shelf can feel easier than clicking around online, Hunt said.
Convenience, not just price, is a priority for back-to-school shoppers, so Wal-Mart is trying to make it less of a headache, however they choose to shop, said Scott Bayles, Wal-Mart’s vice president of stationery.
“As customers view time as a new form of currency, it’s our job to save them time as well as money,” Bayles said.
For the first time, the chain is deploying a version of the “Holiday Helpers” program, in which Wal-Mart added more employees near checkout to keep lines moving during the busiest shopping periods.
But it’s also one of several retailers trying to make it easier for customers to handle their back-to-school shopping online. Wal-Mart is offering same-day store pickup for a wider range of school items shoppers can order online. And both it and Target post supply lists from participating schools on their websites. Shoppers can browse on their own or add every item on their child’s list to a digital cart with one click.
Staples lets customers upload a photo of a supply list through their app. An employee will prep the order for in-store pickup within two days, but typically in about half an hour, Christine Mallon, Staples’ vice president of retail marketing, said in an email.
Still, shoppers who choose to pick up an online order at a Staples store often walk the aisles to make sure they didn’t forget anything, she said.
Customers already have proven willing to outsource some supply shopping. According to The NPD Group, 65 percent of U.S. consumers who have the option to purchase a pre-packaged school supply kit have done so at least once. The kits, often sold through a child’s school, are a timesaver, but can also be more expensive and don’t let kids choose the items filling their backpacks.
As online back-to-school services become more common, more customers likely will start taking advantage of them, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with The NPD Group.
It’s already happening with back-to-college shopping, an even larger market. Families of college students, who often purchase electronics and dorm furniture along with apparel and other supplies, are expected to spend an estimated $54 billion this year, according to the retail federation.
College students increasingly shop online at home and pick items up at a store near their school or have them delivered straight to campus, Cohen said.
“These kids aren’t loading a trailer full of stuff anymore, they’re buying online and shipping to themselves at school,” Cohen said.
Families buying for students in kindergarten through high school were more likely to say they planned to do back-to-school shopping at department stores and discounters than online, according to the retail federation. But for back-to-college shoppers, online was the most popular choice.
That doesn’t mean stores aren’t getting ready for the college crowd, stocking shelves with extra-long sheets, shower caddies, minifridges and futons.
Even when a retailer’s website doesn’t get a shopper’s back-to-school dollars, it’s likely influencing them. About 60 percent of Chicago parents surveyed by Deloitte said they planned to research back-to-school purchases online before buying in stores.
“It’s similar to the holidays, they want physical stores and online to be complementary,” said Liz Berrill, a partner at Deloitte.
If new online shopping options that shoulder much of the work of back-to-school shopping succeed in getting customers to spend more online, it could be a double-edged sword for retailers with a bricks-and-mortar presence, Cohen said.
A frazzled parent might give in when a pleading child pulls a pack of scented colored pencils and a new Avengers-themed backpack off the shelf. They’re less likely to splurge on items that aren’t essential when given an easy-to-find list of basics online, Cohen said.
Losing a few impulse purchases is probably worth it to keep shoppers from defecting to a competitor willing to remove more hurdles, Cohen said. The trick is mixing convenience with a compelling enough experience to make customers want to browse anyway.
“That’s the dilemma for all of retail, not just back-to-school,” Cohen said.
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