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17 October 2019

Back-to-school: how retailers can deliver on consumers’ needs and deliver value for parents

Get to grips with BTS…

Back-to-school is big business in the retail sphere – as parents download coupons, dig out their gift cards, and gather up their mini-mes, all to go in search of the gear they need for a great start to the school year.

Here at Equator, we believe it’s vital to be one step ahead of trends. Armed with extensive knowledge of national brand and private brand retailers and ranges, we provide the insight our clients need to anticipate and deliver products which satisfy consumer demand – which in the back-to-school (BTS) period means creating value and choice for parents and children when they need it most.

According to Mintel, US consumers were expected to spend $122 per household on back-to-school supplies for children and teens K-12 and $69 on back-to-college supplies for college students. More than half (six in 10 parents) agreed that having the right school supplies is important while 39% thought that having the right items can play a part in setting their child on the path to success in school.

The National Retail Federation forecasted an even rosier future ahead of the 2019 season, stating that BTS shoppers planned to spend $40 more this year than they did last year on school supplies and clothing.

In the UK, the average households’ BTS budget was also expected to grow this year, with research commissioned by GlobalData suggesting spending to hit £1.7bn with projected market growth of 1.5%. School accessories, so items such as stationery, is expected to be the fastest-growing category in the back to school market, pegged at an impressive 2.0%.

GlobalData also noted that this category will experience greater growth than last year due to consumer concern surrounding single-use plastics, boosting purchases of lunch boxes and water bottles in particular.

With so much to gain, it’s no surprise that both manufacturers and retailers want to cash in on back-to-school as the period itself becomes more rigidly defined. Some analysts have noted that hype around Amazon Prime Day in mid-July is effectively kicking off the season, suggesting that parents are increasingly relying on online outlets to scope out early deals.

While eCommerce is acquiring a greater portion of the market share YOY, traditional BTS shopping in bricks and mortar outlets is still widely enjoyed among families. Children often pick out their own items, as their parents allow them to express their individuality and autonomy through decision-making. Recently, we’re also seeing more dads taking the kids for BTS shopping, particularly among middle-school and older children.

Retailers including Walmart, Target, Office Depot and Kohl’s have all built strong marketing campaigns and promotions around BTS, targeting both children and parents. Handy supplies lists for young children, teens, and college students are used to boost sales and reliance on particular brands. Celebrity endorsements, influencers and user-generated content on embedded brand feeds are all tools major brands are using to boost engagement.

The UK has seen a renewed migration to the discounters as families hunt down bargains on uniform and other supplies, such as rucksacks etc.  This could be said to be linked to the price increases in some of the high street stores, that tend to far outstrip the income growth that the average UK family is witnessing at present, especially around the uncertainty posed by Brexit.

Stationery and apparel, in particular, are two areas where UK parents are seeing uplifts in costs that can fuel the move to discount outlets. As a result, ultra-low uniform pricing is being used to accelerate footfall to the likes of Aldi and Lidl. This year, Aldi launched a school uniform bundle of essentials for under £5.00! The chain further cemented their value proposition by launching a pack of two polo shirts, sweatshirt and skirt or trousers for £4.50 - 10% less than the 2018 price.

Tapping into the tradition and emotion around BTS also tends to translate into strong performance, as brands and retailers increasingly encourage consumers to consider the less fortunate by donating to children’s charities, while advocating a renewed focus on children’s wellbeing, mental health and self-esteem.

However, the pressure to spend can be daunting, with more than half (51%) of US parents with children under age 18 surveyed in a recent survey stating they felt pressured to overspend on new clothes and supplies. Many families are looking high and low to grab a great bargain. As a result, they’re turning not just to the stalwart retail outlets, but also frequenting discount stores. According to a report from Prosper Analytics & Research, which surveyed more than 2,000 adults for the study, discount stores overtook online as the second biggest channel, with 50.1% intending to shop in them. 

Finally, while back-to-school can be an exciting time for many children and parents and an excellent occasion for quality family time and bonding, BTS shopping may also trigger added stress in parents’ already busy lives. Therefore, whatever steps brands can take to make shopping more convenient and enjoyable, such as home delivery, click and collect options, and navigational tools to help locate items quickly, these features are now generating great interest among parents.


A note about college students

Although college enrolment in the US has been in decline for the last eight consecutive years  (according to stats from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center), 2018 was a record-breaking year for back-to-college sales – with $942 spending on supplies including books, clothing, footwear and book bags and electronics. Due to a high percentage of students indicating their intention to participate in BTC shopping, results from this year are forecast to be similarly as strong. Interestingly, a growing percentage of young people are shouldering the expenses themselves, with 49% being the primary purchaser.*

Some UK retailers have jumped on the US bandwagon, leveraging the whole ‘back to college’ mantra and have launched clothing lines specifically aimed at tertiary level students. Boohoo, Quiz and other fast fashion, eCommerce sites have invested heavily in campaigns that leverage the whole BTS proposition, utilising influencers and harnessing trends such as sports luxe etc. to convert buy-in and drive sales. 


Would you like to know more about US and UK consumer retail and packaging design trends, plus get the latest news from our six global Equator studios? Follow our social channels for original articles and insight. To speak to a member of the Equator team about creating innovative packaging and brand messaging for your US product range, contact Ed Holden –


*Retail statistics compiled by the National Retail Federation/Mintel.