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Back to school now third largest shopping event in the UK: study

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Back to school is the third largest seasonal shopping event in the UK, with parents collectively parting with almost £1 billion, a new study suggests.

Mintel research puts a £915m price tag on the cost of sending children back to a new academic year, starting next week, with £436m spent on school uniform and shoes alone – with an average individual spend of £273, on goods from uniform to stationery. This makes it the third largest shopping event, after Black Friday and Christmas.

“Back to school is a major shopping event for the nation’s retailers, beaten only by Black Friday and Christmas,” says Chana Baram, research analyst at Mintel. “Spending on back to school is being driven by rising inflation, the increased cost of childrenswear and stationery, and a boost to the back-to-school population caused by a previous boom in birth rates and the decision to raise the school leaving age to 18 in 2015.

“There has also been a trend among school students to want more ‘fashionable’ stationery and school accessories, which adds to costs. And parents are willingly buying more branded school items, including bags and coats, perhaps influenced by the various back-to-school advertising campaigns focused on branded goods.”

Supermarkets are the biggest beneficiaries of that spending, says Mintel, with 33% of shoppers buying equipment in them, followed by department stores (9%), pure plays (7%) and specialist school retailers (13%). It questioned 475 internet users with children aged between 4 and 17 in September 2017.

Baram added: “Currently supermarkets are the preferred place to purchase back-to-school items, with parents attracted by the convenience of being able to buy all school items in one place. Other retailers could benefit from offering a wider variety of school-related products to help make them more appealing to busy parents.”

Stock availability is a key area for improvement, says 36% of shoppers – perhaps frustrated when their child’s size is not in stock, while 34% would like more consistent sizing.

It says that 41% of parents stock up in the two or three weeks before the start of terms, while 8% do it in the last week – dads (10%) more than mums (6%).

Target the early bird

However, another study finds that most UK parents have finished their new school year shopping a month before the autumn term starts, a YouGov/Ingenico Back to School study found. 

Its analysis came from a 2,000 shopper survey, carried out by YouGov, in which 768 of respondents planned to buy supplies for the new academic year, and from its own payment data from previous summers. That found a consistently high volume of transactions through late July and early August, before a mid-August lull and a pre-term spike. Almost half (45%) shop at high street or online retailers while 38% buy from online marketplaces.

Andy Mulcahy, strategy and insight director at UK online retail association IMRG, said: “As back to school has a clear cut-off data, when children often need new shoes to replace the ones they haven’t tried on for six weeks – it may be that offering next-day click and collect could prove to be a key differentiator for retailers. We see something similar in the week leading up to Christmas Day, where those offering it generally generate far higher sales growth than those who don’t.”

He added: “Stores have an important role to play in Back to School, as kids need to get their feet measured and try on clothes – but this ‘limitation’ of online never seems to stop people from buying clothes and shoes remotely and returning those items that don’t fit. Indeed, year-to-date in 2018 footwear has been one of the strongest-growing online sectors we are tracking.”

Marc Birkner, managing director of small and medium businesses at Ingenico Group, said retailers needed to make sure they catered to early bird shoppers by focusing stock levels and marketing on the period identified as peak for back to school.

He added: “Online marketplaces have yet to put their stamp on back to school, giving retailers a chance to maximise the benefits of their own brand heritage. Nurturing a reputation for quality and robustness will draw in conscientious parents and establish relationships that may well develop into brand loyalty.”

The study also points to young adults going to university, who are in the market for technology. 

Tech is the biggest cost for 22% of 18-24 year olds, a figure nearly three times as high as the 35+ category (8%). However, students preparing to move away from home also have a very broad range of product requirements including everything from kettles to stationary to duvets. Ingenico says that targeting this demographic with both mid-summer and last-minute campaigns is likely to yield impressive results each summer.

How back to school shoppers buy

ContentSquare analysed 61m early back-to-school shopping sessions over the course of a month to understand a market that it says on average sees parents spend around £533.45 on school and college supplies and uniform.

“Department stores may be the go-to for the school uniforms and stationary suppliers for notepads and pens,” said its UK managing director Duncan Keene, “but there are a variety of ecommerce brands that are also providing all of the essentials from calculators, rulers and even tablets to backpacks and sportswear for gym sessions. Rather than assuming that the back to school period brings parents back into stores, ecommerce brands must cater for those who prefer to shop from the comfort of their home, or while they are on the go.

“To avoid missing out on this periodic but profitable sales period, ensuring you are optimising the digital experience for back-to-school shoppers is key for online retailers. By simply making the customer’s user experiences as seamless as possible, you’ll assist summer-wearied parents survive the back to school shop and keep your brand out of detention for the next time.” 

What parents would like to see change

Cybertill and YouGov asked parents how they prefer to shop, and what they’d like to see change about the shopping experience. 

The Cybertill Parent Report study, which questioned more than 300 UK parents of children aged 11 or under on their shopping habits, found that mums, dads and guardians want knowledgable shop staff, efficiency, convenience and good facilities when they are shopping. Almost three quarters (74%) said they hate it when shop staff don’t know as much as they do about the products they want to buy. 

Parents tend to browse products in real life and compare prices online before buying, although only 13% of purchases are helped by in-store browsing. 

Almost two-thirds (64%) want a dedicated click and collect till, while 48% are frustrated by a long queue to pick up their click and collect order. Still more (68%) would be encouraged by discounts, buy one get one free offers and points that add up to money to spend in store and are happy to hand over their data to a loyalty scheme to get that. But only 13% wanted personal recommendations based on what they’d already bought.

Four in 10 (41%) parents want to be able to check stock themselves, while 32% want to be able to checkout their purchase themselves using touchscreen displays. 

Ian Tomlinson, founder and CEO of retail technology firm Cybertill, said: “Parents want retailers to keep it simple. If you’re thinking of investing in digital technology in-store, make sure that you’re going to make the shopping experience more efficient and helpful. Firstly, have a dedicated click and collect point, clearly marked. Smyths Toys are really on the money with click and collect. With a wait time of just 1 hour, this can only be a good thing for parents who have limited time as it is. Secondly, ensure that your shop staff is knowledgeable and has access to technology that allows them to serve customers in-store effectively, and thirdly, consider offering facilities in-store that will make your shop a destination for parents shopping with their children, whether that be offering free drinking water, a changing room, or simply a place to rest or play.”

Back to normal – and decluttering

Meanwhile, Pinterest reports that it’s not just students who are getting back to it. Its Back to Life report found that September also sees adults making changes to their lives. More than half (55%) of the 2,000 UK adults who responded to its study said that September was now synonymous with getting back to their own lives For more than a third (37%) that means more ‘me’ time, while a similar proportion (38%) are looking forward to making small lifestyle changes. Those changes include decluttering and reorganising for 51% of women and 35% of men, with the wardrobe (3.8m Pinterest searches), kitchen (2.2m), bedroom (1.9m) and bathroom (1.8m) the most likely areas to be reorganised. More than 63m searches have liked at exercise and more than 350m for healthy recipes.

Image: Fotolia

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