Back-To-School (BTS) is back again. And if a retailer isn't prepared for BTS by now, they've already missed the boat ‒ since the majority of spending will be made by the end of this week.
For retailers that are prepared, the BTS outlook is bright. According to the NRF's annual Back-to-School and Back-to-College surveys, families with children in elementary school through high school plan to spend an average $696.70. That's up from $684.79 last year. Families with college students are expected to spend an average $976.78, which is up from last year's $942.17. All totaled, the NRF projects that BTS spending for K-12 and college students will reach $80.7 billion.
The healthiest of spending will be across clothing and accessories, electronics, footwear and school supplies – none of which comes as a surprise.
So beyond the obvious – what can retailers expect from BTS, consumer expectations, and more important, what BTS trends might signal for 2019 holiday results?
Below are three BTS trends I will be paying close attention to, and I suggest retailers do the same.
Will consumer confidence take a tariffs-related tumble?
Even though tariffs won't have an immediate impact on BTS, I think they are having an impact on consumer confidence. The consumer confidence index took a hit in June – attributed to threats of tariffs – and then came back stronger than ever in July when it looked like those were not going to happen. Now, following the August 13 announcement that proposed tariffs on clothing, footwear and a number of other items would be delayed until December 15, some retailers have been granted a reprieve.
While the tariffs delay was designed to help protect the holiday shopping season, all this up and down is bound to take a toll on consumer confidence. When consumers are worried, they hold back. The one thing about BTS spending, though, is that you kind of need to spend the money whether you want to or not. School supplies, electronics, dorm supplies … pretty hard for students to get by without those purchases.
Even clothing and shoes are tough to put off buying, because kids grow. However, weather could determine whether clothing purchases are delayed until later in the season. It's hard to think about long-sleeved shirts and long pants with record-setting heat. It seems like the heat has broken over much of the United States, but if another strong wave hits in August, that could impact consumers' willingness to shop for anything beyond the bare minimum to get kids back in school.
BTS winners focus on agility, customer convenience
I think agility will be the determining factor between retail winners and losers for BTS 2019. Agility in personalizing to the consumer and in how back-to-school inventory is presented to consumers. Also agility in execution: where inventory is positioned and whether you can get more on short notice, and how quickly you can get inventory to consumers.
When it comes to presenting inventory to consumers, it is important for local stores to know their local school start dates, and to work with local school districts to get their hands on supply lists or dress codes – anything that increases the convenience factor in helping families assemble the diverse list of items they need. I've seen some retailers provide photocopied checklists for each school/grade in the store, and I've even seen some enterprising store managers pre-build kits of back-to-school supplies to help make navigating sometimes long and complicated checklists a breeze.
Modern-day layaway gains ground
We are seeing more and more retailers that are interested in offering payment options that are sort of a modern-day version of layaway – and these are all kinds of retailers, including (surprisingly) luxury. Companies such as Klarna, Laybuy and Splitit are a few providing this "shop now, pay later" service for retailers to extend to their customers.
One thing that I will be interested to know is whether wider availability of those kinds of payment options make it easier for families to spread out back-to-school expenses, instead of having to manage them all in one month. I don't know that this is widespread enough to have an impact on this BTS shopping season, but I think it's something to watch for in the holiday shopping season and in 2020.
Signals for what's to come?
Perhaps outside of the Great Recession, BTS results rarely play much of a role in signaling what happens during the holiday season. One, so much can happen between August and November, and two, consumers' budgets and spending mindsets for the two shopping events are significantly different. Also, while BTS may focus hard on convenience (time-crunched families dragging kids on a shopping trip aren't really looking for "experiences"), holiday shopping has to be good at experiences for those who want them (especially those looking for help selecting gifts) vs. convenience later in the season, when desperate gift hunters come out in droves. Either way, this is definitely a time of the year when retailers roll out their "best" experiences – so be on the lookout now for the retail innovations that may drive holiday successes.