Cool weather heats up back-to-school sales

Rene Wisely
Special to The Detroit News

Cooler summer temperatures earlier this summer have heated up back-to-school sales, sending shoppers to stores sooner than in previous years.

Grand Rapids-based Meijer and other stores logged record early July starts to a key selling period that is second only to the December holidays in importance to retailers.

“We typically see the biggest surge in back-to-school shopping the weekend before school begins, but we’ve already seen one of our best seasonal starts as customers are clearly looking for value early in the season,” said Frank Guglielmi, spokesman for Meijer.

Shopping centers and independent stores are seeing the same phenomenon. Twelve Oaks Mall tenants in Novi and Gigi’s Mode in Plymouth began selling jeans, long-sleeve shirts and sweaters in July.

“I was just unpacking sweaters and sold one right from the box,” said Gigi Mode’s co-owner Amanda Britcher. “They are buying fall merchandise much sooner than previous years. They are even looking at boots.”

To further help fuel sales, Twelve Oaks Mall is giving school-age shoppers an incentive to visit. It is hosting Summer Fun Thursdays, a free weekly family-friendly entertainment series with musicians, circus performers, science experts and a giveaway in August, says Twelve Oaks General Manger Daniel Jones.

Back-to-school spending is expected to increase this year, according to National Retail Federation’s 2014 Back-to-School Survey. A family with children in grades K-12 will spend an average $669.28 on clothing, shoes, supplies and electronics, up 5 percent from last year. College students and their parents will spend an average $916, up 10 percent for a total of $48.4 billion.

Kristen LaForest, 44, of Canton has spent $150 so far, all in one July shopping trip. With four children, two in high school and twins in sixth grade, she bought notebooks, binders, glue, folders and the like.

And she’s still not done. She will take each child out individually to make more purchases. “I like to take them with me so they see how much everything is because it’s not cheap,” LaForest said.

She expects this year to be less expensive than last year, however. “I had them do inventory to see what we need to buy and what we can reuse,” she said.

Only one of the four backpacks has to be replaced, and the family purchased an iPad, a keyboard and a laptop last year, so a jump drive may be the only technology purchase this year.

The demand for electronics is the root of the expected increase in back-to-school spending, the National Retail Federation believes.

According to its survey, back-to-school shoppers will spend an average $212.35 on electronic items, up 7 percent from $199.05 last year, with total spending expected to reach $8.4 billion.

Michigan’s technology tab promises to be above the national average, as many school districts are taking advantage of the state’s 22i Technology Readiness Infrastructure Grant (TRIG), which helps a district prepare for the planned implementation in 2014-2015 of online growth assessments.

As part of the TRIG statewide device purchasing program for schools, two state-bid approved computer companies, Netech Corp. in Wixom and Rochester Hills-based Sehi Computer Products, Inc., offer up to 40 percent discounts on business-class mobile learning devices for personal use, so rather than borrow the school’s device, students may use their own.

Families from districts including Dearborn Public Schools, Grosse Pointe Schools and West Bloomfield Schools are snatching up the deep discounted technology as part of their back-to-school needs, said Craig Sehi, vice president of national sales for Sehi, the company his father started.

The demand surprised even Sehi.

“This TRIG program itself has brought in $25 million over 3½ months for Sehi, and that is about three-quarters of the business we did total last year,” he said.

Mark Davidoff, Michigan managing partner for Deloitte, believes the uptick in technology use in schools has the potential to cut the traditional back-to-school spending by 13 percent this year.

“We are moving from paper clips and thumb tacks to laptops and thumb drives, so that drives a different spending pattern,” Davidoff said. “In essence, we’ve adopted a renewable approach to education through the use of digital screens as opposed to buying up the inventory of paper, pencils and binders at the beginning of the year.”

West Bloomfield mother of three Lauren Lessen believed Davidoff’s thinking would hold true for her back-to-school budget because her two West Hills middle-schoolers will be using school-provided iPads this year for the first time.

“I expected them to need less paper and folders, but I checked and the school supply list has the exact same number of items that it did the year before,” Lessen said.

While she began her shopping in mid-August, she knows she won’t finish until well into September.

“My high-schooler won’t get his lists until after school starts, so I basically clear my calendar for that week to get everything he needs,” Lessen said.

Rene Wisely is a Metro Detroit freelance writer