Back-to-school has become a multi-billion dollar “holiday”

August 28, 2014

Back-to-school as it relates to college students and purchasing dorm room necessities is top of mind for me right now as I am in the thick of it and fully expect to be for the next six years or so. Last week was back-to-school for our son who is attending a large state school in Pennsylvania. And I have to tip my hat to such retailers as Bed, Bath and Beyond and Target when it comes to purchasing dorm room/apartment basics. I know that there are also many other retailers in the back-to-school mix, but my personal experiences are with these two in particular.

Back-to-school as it relates to college students and purchasing dorm room necessities is top of mind for me right now as I am in the thick of it and fully expect to be for the next six years or so. Last week was back-to-school for our son who is attending a large state school in Pennsylvania. And I have to tip my hat to such retailers as Bed, Bath and Beyond and Target when it comes to purchasing dorm room/apartment basics. I know that there are also many other retailers in the back-to-school mix, but my personal experiences are with these two in particular. They know how to do back-to-school and they do it right creating a very positive brand experience! Yes, I know that it is totally self-serving that these retailers have turned back-to-school into yet another holiday and estimated to bring in close to $75 billion in sales across the country (including dorm necessities, school supplies and clothing), placing it second only to end of year holiday shopping (est. $602.1 billion). While retailers have made back-to-school such a strong sales generating, must-have phenomenon, they have also put a tremendous amount of thought into the entire back-to-school customer experience.

When I was going to college back-to-school shopping was nowhere near the big business it is today, but then again selecting a college wasn’t as competitive either. Retailers have taken what has become a very stressful experience, especially for those “first time” families, and turned it into an easy and, for some, even an enjoyable family adventure. Talk about customer engagement! We experienced customer engagement to the max. Upon entering our local Bed, Bath and Beyond, we were greeted and asked which college our son was attending and in which dorm he would be living. Apparently, each dorm building, while on the same college campus, can have different requirements in terms of what is provided versus what you need to bring. This was a major “good to know.” We were then given a college checklist of items required along with those highly recommended or to which we would want to give strong consideration in order for our son to achieve maximum comfort away from home. I did find myself repeatedly asking, “Just how big is this room that you will be sharing with one, perhaps even two other individuals?”

For added convenience, the items on our checklist appeared in the same order as our store journey— bedroom, bath, living, kitchen, etc. And to top it all off, we could have either purchased our items and took them home with us that day, or simply checked off the items we wanted to purchase, order them on-line and have them either shipped directly to the college or waiting for pick up at the Bed, Bath and Beyond located closest to my son’s college town.

So why am I so impressed? First of all, kudos to the retailers and their marketer(s), buyer(s) and partners who took a huge money making opportunity and did not just settle for heavy merchandise promoting and making a sale. They really took the time to research each college and university in order to manufacture and market very affordable merchandise in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, patterns and materials to meet every student’s personal tastes and needs. They took the college journey, no doubt more times than they would care to admit, in order to not only understand the parent and students perspectives, but to do so to help make our journey a pleasant and memorable one.

Secondly, these retailers set out to make convenience and efficiency a priority at every touchpoint. Throughout our customer journey we purchased the “necessities” as well as many, perhaps too many, impulse items. But in the end, our son is all settled in and ready to face his college experience with utmost of confidence. And, while we may have fallen for all the hoopla surrounding back-to-school and contributed to this $75+ billion holiday, our experience was pleasant, convenient, efficient and overall a good value — four attributes that I would consider integral to the success of any brand’s customer experience.

For those with children in grades K-college what has your back-to-school experience been like? What retailers and/or brands do it right and where are there areas for improvement?

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