Back-to-school shopping is becoming less important to families in the U.S. How should retailers respond to this change?

Retailers have long relied on the back-to-school season to boost their sales. However, 2015 could be the end of a longstanding shopping tradition, according to Deloitte.

The consulting company, which surveyed 1,015 U.S. parents of school-aged children in July of this year, found that nearly four in 10 parents think back-to-school shopping is less important to their families than it was last year, and 31 percent will choose to complete their back-to-school shopping after the school year starts.

This shift could disrupt the retail industry and push retailers to change their back-to-school marketing approach, according to Kasey Lobaugh, chief retail innovation officer for Deloitte.

"Years ago, if you were going back to school and didn't buy your lunch box or your backpack in the summer, you missed out because those items were only on the shelves for a limited time. Now, consumers can buy school items any time, and parents don't need to consolidate that shopping into a short period. If last year's backpack doesn't wear out until spring, or parents wait for holiday promotions to buy the latest laptop, retailers will have to learn to capture those back-to-school sales at different times throughout the year, and that, in turn, affects how they manage inventory, assortment, marketing and promotions," Lobaugh explains.

Back-to-school shopping is greatly influenced by digital devices, especially smartphones. Deloitte's survey shows that 80 percent of consumers plan to use their digital devices in the back-to-school shopping process, up six percent from last year. Compared to laptops, PCs, tablets and other digital devices, consumers use smartphones more frequently for back-to-school shopping, according to the survey.

However, back-to-school shoppers like using their smartphones to find information instead of making (Read more...) purchase. For example, while more than 40 percent of the consumers surveyed will access a retailer's website for product information, a mere 29 percent plan to buy on mobile.

Lobaugh thinks that the gap between online browsing and offline shopping exists because retailers focus solely on the "buy button," which is actually where they have the least influence.

"Shoppers now make buying decisions at many points in the shopping journey, long before they get to the point of purchase," he explains. "[Retailers] can better capture sales in the store if they connect with consumers during other moments that matter in the shopping process, such as where they find inspiration, research product information, seek validation through reviews, or even buy online to pick up in the store."

The survey also reveals that social media, an important channel for businesses to build brand awareness, is taking a back seat. Only 10 percent of respondents plan to rely on social media for back-to-school shopping, down from 18 percent last year and 35 percent in 2011.

Social media's influence is declining because back-to-school shoppers prefer researching via other online sources and getting recommendations from friends, according to Lobaugh. "Parents shopping for back-to-school may be using these channels more for social interaction than to check with others for buying recommendations," he says.

"Also, with the amount of information they can tap into from other sources online, they may not need as much information or validation from their social networks, as they may be finding the product information and reviews they need elsewhere," he adds.

*Homepage image via Shutterstock.

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