It’s not your imagination. Stores really are pumping up back to school deals earlier than ever, even at the risk of putting shoppers—kids especially—in a foul mood.
“In seven and a half years, I’ve never once seen so much emphasis put on back-to-school before July 4,” National Retail Federation spokeswoman Kathy Grannis recently told AdAge.
The article highlights Walmart, Apple, and the tween apparel retailer Justice as examples of national retailers that started promoting back-to-school deals mere days after some kids finished up the 2012-2013 school year. Sears, Staples, Toys R Us, and OfficeMax are among the many other chains to be pumping up back to school sales within days of the official start of summer.
The New York Times, in fact, reported in May that back-to-school campaigns by retailers began before many kids got their grades for the 2012-2013 year. “The tenuous state of the economy is a major reason for the earlier arrival of back-to-school campaigns,” the Times noted. “The goal is to encourage purchases now because of uncertainty over what the future may bring.”
Families can justify buying only so many new outfits and notebooks for their children for the school year. So retailers are battling to snatch those consumer dollars first via earlier and earlier back-to-school promotions. Stores must keep up with the competition or risk losing out. It’s essentially the same pattern we’ve seen during the Christmas holiday shopping period: When one retailer decides to open the doors to Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving night at 8 p.m., its competitors are sure to follow suit, despite the grumblings of some who say the nonstop shopping and consumption ruins the true “spirit of giving.” And when one retailer decides to line its aisles with Christmas sale items in September or discounted back-to-school goods in June, competing stores often feel compelled to do the same.
But is it too soon for stores to go “back to school”? That’s what Retail Wire asked earlier this week, prompting various industry insiders to weigh in on the matter. Many noted that because in some states, students start school in early August, the back-to-school campaigns aren’t really that early. But others described the promotions as “ridiculous,” and perhaps bad for business. “My grand-daughter just finished school on June 26,” one business professor commented. “The only thing [early back to school discounts] accomplishes is cutting margins. The thinking is bizarre.”
“Think of all the kids having their summer vacation ruined with thoughts of back to school right after the 4th of July!” a marketing professor wrote, wondering, “Does stretching the sale periods longer really increase sales or just flatten the sales curve over a longer time period.”
Another expert joked that consumers should “count ourselves grateful that there IS a Back to School event.” Why? Because if it wasn’t for back to school season, we’d probably already be getting inundated with promotions for the winter holiday shopping season.
Regardless, retailers have come to see back to school as an enormously important period for their businesses. According to the National Retail Federation, back-to-school and back-to-college spending accounts for $84 billion in annual sales, making it the year’s second-biggest shopping season. It’s in a distant second place, after the monstrous $580 billion Thanksgiving-New Year’s period, but back to school is still important nonetheless, especially in terms of reaching younger consumers (and the people who make the purchasing decisions for younger consumers.” “Back to school, that’s our Olympics” for the youth business, Mike Ullman, CEO of JC Penney, said earlier this year, per Bloomberg.
Only this breed of Olympics comes every year—and every year, the competition gets tougher, and the games played by retailers and marketers grow longer and longer.