Back to School 2015

August 13, 2015

Back-to-School is typically the second largest shopping event for retailers. However, many analysts are predicting weaker sales in 2015. Which retailers will perform the best and score an A+?

By now, many of us are well in the throes of back-to-school shopping. Children will be soon be lamenting the end of summer and parents are anxiously awaiting the big yellow bus so they can get their lives back on a regular schedule.

If it seems as though retailers have been advertising for back-to-school since the day school let out back in June, you are right. That’s because back-to-school typically represents the second largest retail sales season, with 2015 sales predicted to top out at $68 billion inclusive of grades K through college. While $68 billion is quite an impressive number, it does represent a 9% decrease from last year. With the National Retail Federation (NRF) convinced that many retailers will be called to the principal’s office in September for poor performance, retailers have significantly turned up the dial on advertising, in addition to offering steep discounts and staying open extended hours in order to prove them wrong.

Further complicating the issue is that retailers are finding it challenging to measure actual sales performance, with the lines blurring as to what constitutes back-to-school from both actual purchasing behavior and the varied types of retailers who are vying for our attention. Regarding purchasing behavior, back-to-school typically represents a finite period of time—the four weeks prior to school starting. Now, consumers are shopping back-to-school all year round as they purchase laptops, tablets, smartphones and the various necessities used for everyday conveniences when needed. They are also replenishing supplies throughout the year, avoiding the need for major restocking before school starts.

Why the shift in behavior? Electronics and technology have impacted our lives as both we and our children rely on multiple devices to keep us connected everyday—not just during the school year. Additionally, the ease, convenience, heavy discounts and free shipping offered year-long from unconventional back-to-school retailers such as and an increased emphasis on e-commerce from Target and Walmart make shopping only a click away.

Given this shift in purchase behavior and in the types of retailers who are competing for our dollars during this critical back-to-school sales season, I thought that it would be interesting to take a closer look to see which retailers are actually making the grade. Based on my own personal experience just this week shopping for two college-age children, I was expecting that Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Walmart, Staples and Costco to be the top performers. After all, I have the receipts to prove it.

Tenet Partners recently released its Top 20 Most Powerful Back-to-School Retail Brands Report, which is based on the performance of those retail brands tracked in its CoreBrand® Index (CBI). While I was scanning the list of the Top 20, it was quite apparent that the back-to-school retail landscape is comprised of retailers in all shapes and sizes with apparel, shoe, book, office supply, big box, mass merchandiser, club, eyewear and e-commerce brands all competing for our share of wallet (or backpack). Most of the retailers I expected, with the exception of Costco, made the list with some passing flying colors while others struggled to make the grade. Barnes & Noble, Target, Walmart and Bed, Bath & Beyond have the strongest BrandPower grade scoring above 60., with a BrandPower score of 59, is demonstrating the strongest brand momentum and could soon become head of the class. Many of the traditional back-to-school brands such Staples, Office Depot and Office Max, while making the Top 20, are struggling to make the grade.

I was quite surprised to see Barnes & Noble occupy the #1 spot. While on the surface it certainly makes sense for a bookstore to be on this list, one would think that the many challenges plaguing this retailer would have a negative impact on its performance. That is until I read more about what is contributing to its success—innovation. Barnes & Noble is being quite smart about its future business model, which includes the spinning off of its college bookstore business into Barnes and Noble Education; fueling its ability to expand its presence across many college campuses as well as its digital presence via new technology platforms and apps geared toward Millennials. I was equally surprised to see LensCrafters make the Top 10. Here again we see innovation as a key ingredient behind its powerful performance. LensCrafters is placing an increased emphasis on the in-store customer experience by using advances in technology to uniquely engage customers.

It seems that the key ingredient to being a powerful back-to-school brand includes the use of innovation to establish strong connections with customers. It also includes using technology to enhance the customer experience through digital and mobile applications as well as having a strong e-commerce platform that connects customers (24/7). Providing a wide product selection, offering customer customization, frequent discounts and convenient shipping (not only free shipping, but direct shipping to college dorms) also proved to be key strategies for getting high marks.

Are you surprised by any of the retailers on Tenet’s Top 20 Most Powerful Back-to-School Retail Brands list? What brands are missing? Where is your favorite place to shop for back-to-school and why?

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