Back to School through Brick and Mortar

Back to School through Brick and Mortar

BRG’s Keith Jelinek explains why consumers prefer physical stores when they are getting their kids ready for the first day of class

Retailers wondering about the future of brick and mortar should look at a different set of three words for some encouragement:

Back to school.

In a recently released BRG Retail survey, over half (58 percent) of the respondents plan to buy (or have already bought) most of their back-to-school apparel and footwear in a physical store—even if they still buy some online. For back-to-school supplies, 57 percent are taking that approach, and about 20 percent will buy all of their back-to-school items in physical stores.

Given the beating traditional retailers have taken in recent years, this news is at least somewhat encouraging, says BRG Managing Director Keith Jelinek, co-leader of the firm’s Retail Performance Improvement practice. He noted that no other shopping season outside of the holidays is as strong for brick and mortar. But what makes back-to-school season different? And what must retailers do to stay in line with this? We talked with Jelinek to find out.

Given the survey results, why do you think back-to-school shopping is so much better for physical stores?

KJ: What makes this season different is the type of products being purchased—namely apparel and footwear. Parents want to select a product their child will be happy in and make sure it fits, which is not as conducive to online shopping. It’s much easier to bring the child to the selection of the clothes, let them look at it and let it match their personality—with approval from mom. Backpacks are also included in the apparel category, and they’re a very hot commodity—there are so many different colors and styles.

Another difference is that the season ends up being very short. A lot of people start holiday shopping weeks or months in advance, but back-to-school shopping can happen in the heat of the moment. Depending on the items being bought, purchases can be completed over the course of just a single day.

What retail challenges are associated with this shorter shopping window?

KJ: When you think about products like apparel and footwear, there’s a large variety of colors styles and sizes, which can pose challenges to retail inventories throughout the year. Brick-and-mortar retailers are under enormous pressure when they allocate the initial product to the store—which they do by looking at sales history and placing their bets. But they also must react quickly to the sales and turn around and replenish quickly back into stores. Retailers only have a few cracks at it to read and react. They need to anticipate what will sell, watch their products on a daily basis and allocate back to stores very frequently.

How do stores keep their back-to-school momentum after Labor Day?

KJ: Once school starts, when the kids get back, there will be peer pressure from the fashions that other kids are wearing. Kids will decide they want something if their classmates are wearing it or using it. As a result, retailers can expect that parents are going to open up their wallets and make more trips back to the store.

One part of this that gets forgotten is supplies. When you think of different supplies, retailers often have basics in stock, but many districts and teachers request something specific when kids get to class on the first day. Then parents have to go shopping again, which is why retailers must make sure they have the right inventory in stock. Empty shelves mean opportunity lost.

During this timeframe right after school begins, it’s also important to make sure stores are staffed on weekends and in the afternoons and early evenings. Otherwise, there might be no one around to handle a rush of customers.

The height of back-to-school shopping for 2019 is almost over. How can retailers begin preparing for next year?

KJ: The most important thing is to have a strong private label and branding. Having products that are competing with a nationally branded product is difficult, because everyone can price compare. Retailers who came out for back to school with very good displays and offerings of their own goods are doing well.

This pressure will only increase in 2020 as shoppers use mobile devices to price compare online even while in stores. Having their own brands with great style, sizing and value means people cannot—and hopefully won’t want to—compare with products sold somewhere else.

How has Amazon Prime Day changed back-to-school shopping?

KJ: There really hasn’t been any data specific to back to school and Prime Day, but it does falls right in the kickoff for the season. I’d guess it was successful for the basics, such as notebooks, notebook paper, crayons, pencils, underwear and socks. But Amazon isn’t as strong in apparel yet. Parents want to be able to touch and feel clothes in the store with their kids.

What impact does back-to-school shopping have on the rest of the year?

KJ: It comes down to loyalty. If retailers do back to school right—if shoppers find their children like the style and size available in a store—then parents remember that when it’s time for holiday shopping, which is really just eight weeks later. For parents, it’s essentially muscle memory. If they don’t find what they want in the summer, they probably won’t come back in November or December.

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