In Extra Competitive Back-to-School Season, Retailers Roll Out Big (and Quirky) Deals

The 2013 back-to-school shopping period hasn't represented boom times for retailers — so stores have felt forced to be extra creative in their attempts to attract shoppers

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By most accounts, the 2013 back-to-school shopping period hasn’t represented boom times for retailers. The National Retail Federation predicted that families with school-age children would spend an average of $635 on back-to-school purchases (clothing, tech, pencils and more), down from a high of $689 last year.

“Consumers are not racing to the mall,” Barbara Khan, a Wharton School professor, told the Wall Street Journal. “Recovery is progressing but it’s sluggish. There’s some restraint.”

It’s in this environment that retailers have felt forced to be extra creative in their attempts to attract shoppers. Many stores have gone beyond the usual gift-card bonuses and steep discounts on pencils, glue and other supplies, and have been hosting unusual promotions and deals to turn the heads of budget-crunched shoppers.

Extra Early Sales and Promotions
In the same way that the winter-holiday shopping season grows more bloated each year, the back-to-school period likewise creeps earlier and earlier. Retail experts said this year back-to-school marketing hit a bizarre new standard, in which many stores rolled out deals before July 4 — and even before many students have finished up the school year!

(MORE: Back-to-School Sales Already? Kids Get Ugly Reminder School Isn’t Too Far Off)

From retailers’ point of view, because consumers’ back-to-school budgets are especially limited this year, it’s become more important than ever to attract shoppers first, before a competing retailer grabs their attention (and their dollars). After all, once a consumer’s seasonal budget is spent on backpacks, first-day-of-school outfits and such, their back-to-school shopping ventures are likely done for the season.

Back-to-Class Cyber Monday
Most shoppers have heard of “Christmas in July” sales. In recent summers, Target has tweaked the idea and tried to draw out shoppers with Black Friday Summer sales.

And if retailers deem summer to be good for hosting a replica of one shopping gorge-a-thon, then surely the season can handle one more. On Monday, Walmart held its first Back-to-Class Cyber Monday, in imitation of the big annual online deal day that’s become tradition for the Monday after Thanksgiving.

(MORE: Target’s Online Video Campaign to Turn College Kids Into Lifelong Paying Customers)

Based on the cheap prices — 50¢ crayon packs and glue bottles, $3 backpacks, $44 tablets, $99 minifridges and HDTVs — it almost seems as if Walmart simply decided to hold a post-back-to-school clearance sale before back-to-school season was even over. And that would sorta make sense in light of how retailers are constantly tinkering with common assumptions about when holidays and shopping events are supposed to take place.

Scratch-Off Cards, Instant-Win Games
McDonald’s customers seem to love the annual Monopoly game, which adds the excitement and mystery of possibly winning something to the usual ho-hum experience of paying up at the cash register. During the current back-to-school shopping season, two very different retailers — one aimed at hip youth culture, the other more targeted to moms — are giving sweepstakes a try.

With Kohl’s Win Great Things sweepstakes, customers who spend $30 or more through Sept. 2 get a scratch-off game piece that offers the chance to win things like JanSport backpacks, iTunes gift cards and movie tickets. Abercrombie & Fitch, meanwhile, is holding an Instant Win game that entices consumers to come into the store — where they’ll get a code to enter into the game by sending a text message. Winners get 20% discounts, promo cards worth $10 or $15, or a pair of Abercrombie jeans.

Back-to-School Halloween Merchandise?
If it’s become standard to start back-to-school season before the Fourth of July, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the heart of the back-to-school period is when many retailers start rolling out the Halloween schlock. The Consumerist recently posted a roundup of Halloween candy, Halloween costumes and Halloween decorations already adorning the shelves and aisles of chains like Wegmans, Costco and Big Lots.

That means we’ll be probably seeing Christmas decorations appear by, oh, around Labor Day.

MORE: Meet the Low-Key, Low-Cost Grocery Chain Being Called ‘Walmart’s Worst Nightmare’