Back-to-School Shoppers Will Spend More, but Bargain-Hunt Harder

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Parents are expected to spend more on hoodies, backpacks and notebooks for their kids this back-to-school season, but they'll also be laser-focused on bargains as they scour stores and e-commerce sites for the best deals.

Shoppers with children in grades K-12 will shell out an estimated $688.62 on back-to-school products, from clothing and school supplies to electronics, up from $603.63 last year, according to the National Retail Federation's 2012 Back-To-School spending survey, conducted by BIGInsight.

At the same time, 84.8% of consumers with school-age children said the still-weak economy is influencing their spending plans. More people plan to shop for sales more often over the coming months: 51.1% versus 50.1% last year, the survey revealed.

They'll also look to save money by doing more online comparison shopping to find the best prices: 32.1% versus 29.8% last year.

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And nearly four in 10 shoppers will surf the Internet specifically looking for free-shipping offers and other promotions.

Given all that, it should come as little surprise that most consumers surveyed (67.1%) will shop discount stores this back-to-school season.

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Back-to-School Shoppers Will Spend More, but Bargain-Hunt Harder

Stores pull together color-coordinated items in matching or complementary hues as part of a thematic display designed to spark impulse purchases and multiple sales.

A retailer will spotlight a spring-themed bathroom display, for example, grouping blue, yellow and green shower curtains, bath towels, a rug and bath mat "so that it makes a really nice statement," Steve Ryman, the former vice president of home for both Sears and Kmart (SHLD), who now runs retail consultancy Ryman Consulting, tells DailyFinance.

The display is so nice that a shopper who's in the department simply to buy some new shower hooks suddenly thinks, "'It's time to refresh my bathroom -- and I can do it for $25!' -- and they throw it all in their cart," he says.

Everything from pineapples and palm trees to owls and peace signs have at one time or another captured the imagination of the American consumer -- prompting them to shell out cash for all manner of merchandise sporting the motif du jour.

Often a trendy motif starts at the high end, "then filters its way down to every store in the nation," Ryman says.

When a look is at the height of its popularity, retailers know shoppers are under its odd spell -- but only for a limited time. So while the going's good, they conjure up store displays that enshrine the motif, often featuring "totally unrelated products," Ryman says.

Accordingly, a shopper might find they've brought home a pineapple-themed wreath, bath accessory, doormat and candle.

Retailers use "punitive pricing promotions" to spark impulse sales, says Mark Cohen, professor of marketing in the retailing studies department of Columbia University's business school, and a longtime retail veteran who was the former CEO of Bradlees and Sears Canada and has held positions at the Gap (GPS) and Lord & Taylor. Such promotions include buy one and save 20%, buy two and save 30%, buy three and save 50% type sales.

Stores trick shoppers into thinking, "'the more you buy, the more you save' -- without regard to how much you actually need," Cohen says. "Consumers love these deals, which in fact reward their impulsive behavior."

Call it retail theater: Stores hire well trained and bubbly marketing experts to draw you to their product demonstrations by staging tempting, multi-sensory experiences.

The seduction begins with the overall look and feel of the demo area, with a display that "catches your eye," Ryman says.

Then stores further hook shoppers with food and drink. So a browser sampling, say, a new cheese cutter, is also fed "cheese and sausage, and at the same time they're selling you the cheese cutter, they're selling you knives, six new wine glasses and a bottle of wine," Ryman says. "Retailers maximize the sale by putting together as much related product as they can."

So the now semi-tipsy shopper who didn't even think he needed a cheese cutter has not only purchased that implement, but all the other accouterments, too.

Out with the old, in with the new: Stores send this message to shoppers by playing up new merchandise -- even when its newness is dubious -- by showcasing the goods in a fresh setting, prompting shoppers to make an unplanned purchase.

Retailers highlight presentations of current-season clothing, for example, "which by virtue of fashion, silhouette, or features and benefits, makes last season's merchandise appear to be dated or obsolete," Cohen says. "It plays to a customer who doesn't want to be considered behind the times, without regard to whether or not this new merchandise is actually better or truly different. This is why new season merchandise is invariably different in the way it's colored/packaged and presented so as to make last year's version less attractive." Retailers know that "new and engaging, if only by way of packaging, promotes impulsive buying," Cohen says.

And with consumer packaged goods like cereal, stores can accomplish the same thing "merely through the use of the word 'new' on a package, insinuating the importance of what is typically an insignificant reformulation."

Stores will also try to coax an unplanned purchase from a shopper's planned purchase, a common ploy at electronics chains. Brent Shelton, a spokesman for money saving shopping site FatWallet.com, tells DailyFinance, "Electronic accessories such as cables, as well as extended warranties, are two common up-sells."

"At many electronics stores, if you're purchasing a big-ticket audio-visual item like an HDTV, computer or home theater system, one retail tactic is to try to get you to buy over-priced audio-visual cables -- HDMI, USB adapters, connectors, Monstercables, etc. -- [as well as] speakers, remotes," he says.

These stores also push shoppers to buy extended warranties, which consumer advocates say are mostly a waste of money for a variety of reasons. For one, products rarely break within the extended warranty period, but instead after they've long expired.

What's more, "many credit cards will extend the warranty just for using their card," Shelton says. "And you should find out before swiping a big ticket item at the register."

These displays, featured in prominent areas on a store's selling floor, scream: Buy this merchandise!

Strike zones are "in-your-face, impossible-to-miss displays of merchandise that [the retailer] wants you to notice whether you're looking for something or not," Cohen says. The implicit message is, "It's new, it's special and you've got to check it out, and hopefully, [buy] it."

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Even the kids will chip in more for their back-to-school purchases: Teens will spend $36.48 on pens, paper, lunch boxes and other items, up from $31.64 in 2011.

Shoppers will also spend significantly more on back-to-college merchandise, an average of $907.22 on everything from dorm furniture to school supplies and personal care items, up from $808.71 last year, according to consumers polled.

Interestingly, the growth of online shopping has led to a resurgence of both digital and paper catalogs, the survey revealed. An estimated 15.1% of shoppers plan to use catalogs to buy back-to-college items, up from 11.4% last year.

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