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It’s back-to-school season all year

Adriene Hill Jul 17, 2017
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Alex Wong/Getty Images

Back to school shopping counts for nearly half of all school-related spending in the year for families in the U.S. Retail analysts predict a strong back to school season this year — the most retailers and brands will be offering more deals this year than last and are increasing their spending on marketing. But it doesn’t feel quite like it used to, with more shoppers going online for their deals and with parents and kids buying goods year-round. Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at the Columbia Business School, sat down with host Adriene Hill to give us his perspective on this back to school season. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Adriene Hill: What was it like in the heyday of back to school shopping? What did that look like from a retailer’s perspective?

Mark Cohen: Well maybe 15 or 20 years ago, Mom would stock up on all the things that she felt her kids were going to need for the upcoming school season. Retailers would create very, very powerful all-encompassing promotions for all things “kids.” So there was this holiday during the summer or early fall which mirrored the actual Christmas season for kids’ products.

Hill: How is it different today? What do these retail sales look like now?

Cohen: First of all, years ago, kids started to insinuate that they wanted in on the decision as to what they were going to be wearing. And so there were actually two back-to-school events. Kids would wait until school actually started, check out what their friends were wearing … 

Hill: Very smart!

Cohen: … and then Mom would come back to the store and complete the ride. But the promotions that were once a year that were strikingly aggressive and attractive now occur all year-round. So the motivation to show up and shop certainly has dissipated enormously.

Hill: That’s interesting. So the fact that all the stores have sales all the time means that I’m less likely to go out shopping in this time period that retailers used to count on me shopping as a mom?

Cohen: If the deal is going to be available to you and the merchandise is going to be available all year-round, then what’s the motivation to make this extraordinary trip to the mall and spend an enormous amount of money all at once?

Hill: Are people still buying the same amount of stuff though, just over a broader period? Is it actually hurting the bottom line of these retailers not to have this big promotional set of time?

Cohen: There’s no shortage of kids, and kids and their parents are not walking around without wearing any clothes. They’re not walking around barefoot. So the demand side of the equation still is intact. But the consumer’s acquisition of all of this stuff now takes place throughout the entire year. And then, of course, there is the intrusiveness of the internet.

Hill: You worked back in Sears. You did lots of back to school with Sears, right?

Cohen: Yes. And other retailers.

Hill: What was your best memory of that time as a retailer?

Cohen: Well, years ago I worked for Mervyn’s, which was based in California. Mervyn’s had an enormous kids’ business, kids’ apparel and accessories. And we treated back to school just like Christmas. We very carefully calibrated our stores’ inventory and staffing to coincide with the actual school districts opening throughout the markets that Mervyn’s served. And so we were ready for it. And that’s the heart and soul of retailing. It’s ringing the bell for the parade that you’re going to put on for your customers. It’s the excitement of retail that I think, unfortunately, has diminished to some degree, especially in physical retailing.

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