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Earlier back-to-school sales help parents, retailers


Published:   |   Updated: June 24, 2013 at 11:33 AM

When do you start shopping for school supplies?

When I see a sale
55%
Sometime in August
32%
Last minute
13%

Total Votes: 47

Schools across Tampa Bay let their students out for the summer just two weeks ago, so the time has come, believe it or not, to get ready for Back to School sales.

In the alternate universe of retail industry scheduling, where holiday sales creep ever earlier each year, retailers ranging from the mass-discounter Wal-Mart to tween-girl focused Justice are starting to deploy their back-to-school marketing onslaughts.

Walmart already launched a special website devoted to the 2013 Back to School season, where parents can sort through special deals based on grade levels. Discounts are already in effect, including free shipping and 45 percent off some items. Launch date: June 1 - almost a month ago.

Office Depot is preparing a massive marketing campaign for Back to School, featuring an antibullying message performed by the hugely popular teen band One Direction.

Rival store Staples has already posted a special website to "Keep up with the Top Back to School Trends for 2013." Among the trends: New digital printing methods that put photo-realistic images on fabrics, anything that smacks of a "DIY" ethos, and anything that lets kids customize their own gear.

Tween-focused retailer Justice is already mailing catalogs with 40 percent off sales on things like black-and-white zebra print binders, polka dot backpacks and briefcases, and hot pink lunchboxes and thermoses.

Children's Place has started stocking its stores with backpacks for summer, "as our customers often use children's backpacks for summer trips or camps as well as for school," said spokeswoman Jane Singer. As soon as July 4 passes, the store will start to shuffle inventory to highlight back-to-school inventory.

Customers at Target will start seeing a back-to-school push just after July 4, or earlier in markets where schools tend to start sooner.

Some back-to-school marketing blitzes never really go away. Retailers like Kmart now have devoted websites to stock up on school gear that run all year long.

The earlier rush actually matches some local deadlines. Some schools in the Tampa area are already starting to circulate supply lists for the coming school year - and offering parents a choice: Shop on your own for everything on the list, or cut a check to the school to have them buy the whole inventory at once.

There are other reasons, said retail industry consultant Doug Stephens, revenue being at the top of that list. Retail stores increasingly rely on special events to keep drawing shoppers into their stores, and so they've devoted huge areas of floor space for seasonal items. As each season passes, stores need to jump into the next season without a break.

"Retailers are definitely bumping every shopping occasion up," he said. "Retail is nowhere near where it was pre-2008 and retailers are scraping to make their numbers. It's a totally new reality." Some retailers are being creative in coming up with new ideas, but others he said "are simply playing the same old game but trying to push the shopper earlier and harder."

The winter holiday shopping season is already moving up into October in some stores - with Christmas trees and lights competing with Halloween costumes.

Is this all "early"?

In 2011, The New York Times warned parents to brace for a back-to-school rush of marketing - on July 11. Florida's own three-day, tax-free holiday for back-to-school shopping this year doesn't start until Aug. 2.

Still, late June isn't "early" in the world of retail.

"Some schools start back up as early as the third week in August, so it's not really early," said National Retail Federation spokeswoman Kathy Grannis, and the stakes are high. The back to school season ranks as the second biggest chunk of revenue for retailers. While the winter holidays generated upward of $579 billion in 2012, she notes back to school brought in $83.8 billion. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the total population of kids and adults in school at 79 million - roughly one quarter of the total population.

There's another reason to launch sales in June. While 47.8 percent of parents will start back-to-school shopping one month before the school year starts, a full 22 percent will start two months out.

Some of the most expensive items for back-to-school are already starting to roll out. Toshiba and Lenovo have already kicked off their school season with refreshed models of laptop and tablets. Technology like that is one reason back-to-school spending is becoming a big part of some family's budget. The NRF found that families are spending upward of $700 for back-to-school gear, up from about $450 in 2003.

rmullins@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7919 Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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