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The Back To School Supermarket Sweep: How Retailers Can Prepare

August and September are the months for heading ‘back to school’.

Children may typically spend their summers away from school differently, with seasonal camps popular in the USA and the British seaside holiday loved by many UK families. However one thing remains universal - August and September are the months for heading ‘back to school’.

Only beaten by other high profile, peak shopping dates such Black Friday and Christmas, ‘back to school’ was named the third largest shopping event in the UK. The ‘back to school’ rush is certainly a busy time for retailers as consumers are willing to spend on ensuring their children are prepared for the new academic year. And in spite of the rise of online shopping, more parents are choosing to make these purchases alongside their weekly food shop, at their local supermarket. 

Here, we take a look at the ‘back to school’ market in the UK and USA, consumer trends and what it might mean for retailers who are planning their seasonal stock. 

The Bank of Mum and Dad

In the recent Back-to-School survey from National Retail Federation, it was reported that US families with children in elementary school (the UK’s primary school equivalent) plan to spend an average $696.70 (£577) in 2019. Predicted spend in the UK averages less at £273 ($330) according to Mintel’s 2018 study, still accumulating to a large lump sum for parents. 

The National Retail Federation also found that in July 2019, 89% of the shoppers surveyed still hadn’t purchased half or more of the items on their list. It’s no surprise then that consumers are searching for ways to stretch their budget, as well as stress-free shopping destinations when quickly stocking up on school essentials. 

The Physical School Shopping Experience 

Deloitte found that 56% of US consumers planned to shop for ‘back to school’ in a physical store this year. For parents, the ability to try clothing on in particular is essential, with wrong sizing potentially leading to their children being uncomfortable throughout the school term, and possibly requiring returns or replacements. 

Just as supermarkets have adapted to provide more lifestyle product options on top of the traditional grocery goods, they too have become a top destination for school essentials, with many even having seasonal sections dedicated to the typical products in the run up to September. In 2017, 33% of UK consumers chose to shop for their school items at supermarkets. 

Convenience is key for the popularity of the all-in-one retail destinations, making it easy for busy parents to head from aisle to aisle with their children, trying on clothing and choosing trend-led stationary and accessories while also buying food items for dinners and lunches. 

Alongside convenience, budgeting may also be another reason why supermarkets are favorable. In the UK, where uniform is often compulsory, many of the ‘big four’ retailers and the discount stores sell own-brand school wear ranges in regulatory colors - in 2019, Aldi launched a collection with bundle packages of clothing starting at just £4.50 each. The BBC found that the average price for school clothing at the ‘big four’ were around £58 less for a primary school uniform, compared to more traditional outlets. 

Even in the USA where uniformed schools aren’t as common, smart, plain school-focused lines are also available at grocery stores, with Walmart’s school polo shirt range becoming a best seller in July 2019. 

What Retailers Need To Know

As supermarket’s merchandise ranges continue to diversify, it’s important to be aware of how this impacts consumer spending habits in the run up to September. Offering the same ‘all in one’ lifestyle browsing experience as a department store, but with wallet-friendly prices, and the option to also buy food goods too, it’s no surprise that parents are choosing to get their children ready for school at their nearest supermarket. 

To prepare for this, having access to sophisticated real-time inventory data is key to ensuring that retailers can cope with this period of increased demand. In the US, Walmart has already implemented Bossa Nova technology to help with this, using information sourced from robotics and AI to manage its stock levels, and quickly spot when a product is running low or completely out of stock.

While historic sales trends can inform which specialized products sell well in advance of the ‘back to school’ rush, up to date shelf stock information can help retailers form an agile response on a day-to-day or a week-by-week basis – something crucial, particularly for the ‘last minute’ parents who expect to find everything they need, even in the days just before school starts again.

Alongside keeping on top of stock levels for seasonal products, such as ring-binders, stationary or notebooks, retailers must also be aware that goods throughout the entire store may also depreciate faster during this time with a potentially increased footfall to cope with. Parents are choosing to shop at supermarkets for its convenience, and alongside purchasing the new school lunchbox they may also be stocking up on their weekly food shop and snacks to fill it with.

‘Back to school’ can be as much of an education for retailers as it is for children, and investment in up-to-date in store solutions can ensure brands stay top of the class as more and more parents are choosing to head there for their pre-school shop. 

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