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Back-to-school shopping is becoming a summer-long affair

It’s a critical season for Target, company spokeswoman Jenna Reck says. “Back-to-school combined with back-to-college is our biggest sales-driving season besides holiday.” (Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press)

ST. PAUL — When Rana Cooper was growing up, her parents would take her on a once-a-year shopping trip to stock up for back-to-school. The idea was to get enough clothes and school supplies to last the entire year.

Now Cooper is shopping for her own kids, and things have changed. For Cooper, purchasing begins in early summer; and for other shoppers and stores, it can continue past Labor Day.

“Budget is the main thing,” said Cooper, who was stocking up this week on pencils, notebooks, lunch boxes and backpacks with her two sons, fifth grader Levi, 10, and kindergartner Lane, 5, at SuperTarget in St. Paul’s Midway. “We buy clothes earlier depending on what’s on sale and buy school supplies later.”

If it seems the back-to-school shopping season — typically the last two weeks of August — started early this year, that’s because it did. Cooper, of Spooner, is one of a growing number of parents who are spreading it out.

Dan Steffen’s family shops for back-to-school both online and in-store. Price and convenience are main factors when deciding where to spend their dollars.

“My wife will shop for clothes for the kids online (throughout the year). Sometimes it’s better deals and easier to shop,” said the St. Paul resident. Plus “clothes are more seasonal. It’s hard to buy the kids’ clothes for the whole school year all at one time.”

However, Steffen prefers to shop for school supplies in the store. He was at the Midway SuperTarget this week checking off a list ranging from glue sticks to a calculator for his 6-year-old son Logan, going into first grade at French immersion school L’Etoile du Nord in St. Paul.

“It’s nice that the back-to-school stuff is all right here in one area,” he said. “You can just loop around and get what you need.”

Shopping trends

Retail experts have noticed the trend, and say it’s part of a larger change. Witness the “Black Friday” sales that have stretched holiday shopping ever earlier into November.

“People are less seasonal in their shopping all the way across the board. People want things when the mood hits, so kids are constantly getting new things more often rather than all at once,” said Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist and professor emeritus at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. “It’s been building up steam in the past decade and became mainstream just a few years ago.”

The result is good news for retailers — shoppers are spending more. The National Retail Federation estimates families will spend an average of $670 for back-to-school, an increase of 5 percent from last year.

Yarrow said part of the reason the school shopping calendar is expanding is bargains on items such as clothes are being offered throughout the year. And that has shoppers scoping out merchandise constantly.

“Retailers are adding more, and refreshing their merchandise more often, luring people back to their shops,” Yarrow said. Also, “I think this concept of shopping online 24-7 has seeped into consumer mentality. They want it when they want it, so buying a winter coat in August is less appealing.”

E-commerce has definitely played a role. With constant bargains and year-round access to merchandise, online retail has turned Black Friday and back-to-school shopping into a year-round spree.

A recent survey from Nextopia, a Toronto-based producer of e-commerce software, showed the majority of consumers will shop both online and in store for back-to-school. While 86 percent planned to shop bricks and mortar, 79 percent also planned to shop e-retail.

And with so many outlets for consumers, Nextopia founder and CEO Sanjay Arora said individual retailers will have to be strategic to get a slice of the school shopping revenue.

“You’re competing not always on price ... but who can offer back-to-school sooner, “Arora said. However, “There needs to be a careful balance between trying to maximize back-to-school sales rushes versus holding sales all the time.”

While the back-to-school shopping calendar is starting earlier, Arora noted that August is still a time to get some of the best bargains.

“There’s definitely a spike in June. July is even busier,” he said. “Still, August is king for back-to-school sales.”

Liz Malm, an economist for the Center for State Fiscal Policy at the Tax Foundation in Washington, D.C., said a sales tax holiday enacted in at least 17 states has influenced the way some consumers purchase school items at stores.

The sales tax holiday does not exist in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but states that have enacted it exempt certain items from being taxed for a designated period of time. It can include clothing, school supplies, computer purchases and even Energy Star-rated appliances and emergency preparedness items such as generators and hurricane supplies.

For example in Texas, purchases of up to $100 each in school supplies and clothes were tax free from Aug. 8-10.

Research has shown it has had an impact on when shoppers spend.

“It doesn’t increase consumption,” Malm said. “It just raises their consumption over a period of time.”

Retailers react

For retailers, these changing consumer habits have meant shifting gears. Back-to-school promotions held only in late August are becoming a thing of the past.

“It’s a critical season for Target,” said Jenna Reck, a Target spokeswoman. “Back-to-school combined with back-to-college is our biggest sales driving season besides holiday.”

Target now has two major promotional periods for back-to-school.

In July, the Minneapolis-based retailer launched a campaign in which school supply purchases of any Up and Up store-branded product were matched with a donation of the same item to the Minnesota-based Kids in Need Foundation. The goal of $25 million in supplies was reached on Aug. 1.

This month, Target began holding aggressive promotions for apparel. At one point, all backpacks were on sale. At another, 30 percent off all kids’ apparel was being touted. And this week, an apparel promotion of $5 tees and $10 denim for kids is underway.

“For our guest, there are really two shopping trips that they take,” Reck said. The first trip of the season, it’s about crossing school supplies mainly off their list. The second trip is apparel.”

At Maplewood Mall in Maplewood, Minn., the strategy is to lure back-to-school shoppers with events in addition to merchandise promotions. The mall partnered with Teen Vogue to hold “The ABC’s of Style” event on Aug. 23 that included a fashion show, swag bags, prize drawings, music and food samples.

And some back-to-school campaigns run past Labor Day, coinciding with when retailers are holding clearance sales to prepare for the holiday season. Plus, once school starts, kids can see the fashions other kids are wearing, and may need to head back to the mall.

At Woodbury Lakes in Woodbury, Minn., spokeswoman Laurie Mordorski said more and more retailers are promoting back-to-school shopping beyond August. “Many now continue to promote it through mid-September,” she said.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.