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Back-to-School Season Isn’t What It Used to Be

Paul Ausick

The back-to-school shopping season is traditionally second only to the end-of-the-year holiday season for retail sales. Sales could reach $84 billion -- not really close to the nearly $600 billion for the holiday season, but big just the same. And just like the holiday shopping season, some retailers are beginning the season earlier and earlier in an attempt to grab more sales.

Because the starting dates for a new school year vary so widely, some retailers began promoting back-to-school products before the July Fourth holiday as they try to get a jump on competitors.

For its seventh annual Back-to-School survey, consulting firm Deloitte LLP polled a sample of nearly 1,100 parents of children in grades K through 12 and found some results that might make the early-bird retailers glad they started early.

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Parents expect back-to-school spending to decline from a total of $672 in 2013 to an average of $543 this year. That total includes the amount parents expect to spend plus the amount that the child will spend on purchases of back-to-school items. Items most in demand are school supplies, new clothes, new shoes, and backpacks.

Discounters and discount department stores like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) and Dollar Tree Inc. (DLTR) are the top destination for shoppers, with 85% saying that they will shop these kinds of stores. That’s down 5% from a year ago. Online sales sites gained 2%, rising to a destination for 38% of back-to-school shoppers. The office supply stores like Staples Inc. (SPLS) and Office Depot Inc. (ODP) are going to see traffic fall 5%, from 43% of shoppers last year to 38% this year. Online sites are now tied as the number 2 choice for back-to-school shoppers with the office supply stores.

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A Deloitte executive said:

Retailers should look at their online and mobile channels as a greater opportunity to drive traffic and revenue at the physical store, rather than viewing it as merely a point of purchase, where it actually tends to deliver lower sales than the physical store as a whole.

One concern for shoppers, though, is protection of their personal data. After the major data breach at Target Corp. (TGT) stores last holiday season, more than half of respondents said they are worried about the protection of their personal data. Nearly two-thirds of online shoppers are worried about data protection and more than half of brick-and-mortar store shoppers are too.

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Social media sites like Facebook Inc. (FB) and Twitter Inc. (TWTR) play a sizable role in back-to-school shopping. According to Deloitte’s survey, 55% of respondents use social media to browse products, more than 40% visit retailers’ pages on social media sites, and 68% use social media to find out about promotions. The first two uses increased from 47% and 31% in 2012, while finding promotions fell from 83% a year ago.

Some 84% of respondents owned a smartphone and 66% own tablets. The top use for these devices is to get price information or promotional info or coupons, but 60% of tablet owners also use those devices for online shopping.

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