Along with Black Friday and the January sales, Back to School has become one of those events that heavily punctuate the retail calendar. This year, according to the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) annual Back-to-School Survey, total college spending is expected to reach $48.4 billion in a flurry of expenditures as students, and their parents, prepare for another academic year. That kind of outlay, perhaps, says less about the health of today’s economy and more about the way discretionary income is used to ensure students can get the most from their college experience in ways more than purely academic.
Facing another Rush season at over 725 campus stores around the country, Barnes & Noble College’s Vice President General Merchandise Joel Friedman, is quietly optimistic about this year’s NRF predictions. “We’ve seen some promising signs from our summer season,” he says. “Our logo clothing business is terrific — driven by performance, headwear, womenswear and youth across the board — and our logo gift products are also doing exceptionally well,” he remarks. Another encouraging sign for Friedman is that Barnes & Noble College’s convenience food business is also performing well. “That says to me that we have the foot traffic, we have our customer in the store,” he adds.
Conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, the NRF Survey reinforces that kind of confidence, predicting that the average college student and their family will spend $916.48 on dorm furniture, school supplies, and electronics, up 10% from 2013. A lot of that expenditure is being driven by a stronger demand for electronic items along with the need to restock or upgrade previous year’s school supplies. Specifically, college students and their parents are expected to spend an average of $243.79 on laptops, desktop computers, netbooks, tablets, and smartphones this year, an increase of over 20% from last year, and the highest since 2009. “Technology supplies, as they relate to study, are a critical area,” states Friedman. “Laptops tablets, headphones — anything used for studying — is going to be a feature in back-to-school purchases,” he says.
In addition to examining the kinds of purchases being made, the NRF survey also sheds light on who is doing the spending this year. Millennial spending power seems to be front and center with teenagers planning to spend $913 million of their own money on back-to-school items, which are seen as important to their own values and sense of style. Even among the more cost-conscious, fashion still plays a significant role in the back-to-school juggernaut. “If it’s a commodity driven item, then price is always going to be an issue,” says Freidman, “but if it’s something our students want, rather than just something they need, price does not appear to be an obstacle.”
Even in cases where parents are the ones doing the actual purchasing, the survey found that increasingly students are influencing those decisions about what they buy for back to school. “It’s safe to say this generation takes back-to-school shopping more seriously than their older brothers and sisters did, with many kids today influencing almost everything their parents buy for the upcoming school year,” said Prosper Insights Consumer Insights Director, Pam Goodfellow. “Students will make sure to keep one eye on social media and the other on retailers’ websites as they seek out what’s new and exciting in their hunt for fresh, fashionable and relevant back-to-school gear,” she adds.
Perhaps in a nod to the slowly improving economy, the traditional habits of using the summer to defray back-to-school shopping over a longer period seems to be of less importance to consumers. Some 25 percent of the NRF Survey respondents claimed they would wait until the very last weeks before the beginning of school, perhaps in the hopes of taking advantage of sales or retail promotions — with some even completing their purchases after the school year begins. And while this year’s NRF Survey contains plenty of evidence pointing to a growth in confidence among back-to-school shopper, there’s still a note of caution in the findings. “While we are encouraged by the overall tone of the results, and expect to see continued improvement in consumer spending through the year, we know Americans are still grappling with their purchase decisions every day,” remarked NRF President and CEO Mathew Shay.
Being responsive to the changing needs of consumers is a priority at Barnes & Noble College, and Friedman will be paying close attention to how this year’s Rush season shakes out. “We read the signals and adjust,” he points out. “What our consumers give us in terms of a report card over the next few weeks helps us provide the kinds of products our students are going to need going forward,” he says.
While early indicators point to a robust back-to-school Rush season this year, Barnes & Noble College bookstores around the country will be leaving little to chance. “Through our social efforts, surveys and the feedback from our store and regional managers, we’ve developed some pretty sophisticated ways of inviting insight from our core customers,” Friedman says, “and we’re listening.”