Back-to-school season may not be what it used to be. Under the "new normal" that is the American consumer economy these days, many children, teenagers and their parents appear to be delaying their school-related purchases this season, according to the New York Times. Thus, the full swing of this year's back-to-school shopping blowout may amount to less than has traditionally been the case.
Some of the delay is because kids and parents are holding back to make sure they buy the stuff that's truly on trend, the newspaper says. And unusually hot weather has left some consumers decidedly not in the mood to shop for pants with legs and shirts with sleeves. Another factor is that households don't have to head into stores as early because they research more of their purchases online beforehand and, aware of retailers' strategies, hold out until later in the season when bargains are better.
The back-to-school season is the second-largest sales period for U.S. retailers, after the Christmas holidays.
"People are waiting for deals to occur," Juan Guerrero, Office Depot's head of retail, told the publication, as shoppers hold off on even required staples like pens and notebooks.
But some of the sluggishness of this season reflects many U.S. households' practical response to continued financial struggles.
There has been no shortage of efforts by brands to pry open consumers' reluctant hands around their pocketbooks. Kohl's, for instance, has launched a "Shop It To Win It" back-to-school sweepstakes promotion. Abercrombie & Fitch is giving away 1,000 iPads. Old Navy gave out backpacks. Office Depot gave coupons to shoppers who spent $50 or more.
And more brands are using school-related cause marketing to try to penetrate the psyches of schoolkids and parents. Whole Foods is commemorating the opening of its New York City store, on 57th Street, by giving 57 salad bars to New York City schools. Target generated huge engagement with its "Give With Target" social-media marketing effort to raise funds for schools, the chain said. And J.C.Penney worked with Boys & Girls Clubs of America in a national effort to gather school supplies for kids in need.
A new Deloitte study finds that TV remains the most effective marketing channel for reaching parents making back-to-school decisions, still more than online and social channels. However, social channels are playing their part: Vera Bradley is working with social campaign company Brickfish to sponsor a "Dress Your Dorm" back-to-campus campaign. Participants are invited to post entries to Facebook for the chance to win a dorm room makeover, yielding over 200,000 engagements and about 4,000 entries so far.
Before the season began, the National Retail Federation predicted that back-to-school shopping this fall would increase by a whopping 22 percent, the most in the 10-year history of its forecast. But whether it's for fads or fund-raising, American families don't seem to be as much in the back-to-school mood this August as traditionally, and results so far certainly suggest they'll fall short of boosting their spending by one-fifth or more over last year.
And whether they loosen up over the next few weeks could have huge implications not only for retailers but for the U.S. economy.
[Back to school image via Shutterstock]