Industry Aug 28, 2013 5 min read

Back to School – who's following the rules?

The northern hemisphere is in back-to-school season, a huge opportunity for childrenswear retail, but often overlooked by mens and womenswear markets. We investigated the latest in...

  • Marks & Spencer newsletter 25 June 2013 - EDITD
  • Matalan Homepage 18 July 2013 - EDITD
  • Uniqlo newsletter 19 Aug 2013 - EDITD
  • ASOS womens page 19 Aug 2013 - EDITD
  • Urban Outfitters homepage 3 August 2013 - EDITD

The northern hemisphere is in back-to-school season, a huge opportunity for childrenswear retail, but often overlooked by mens and womenswear markets. We investigated the latest in back-to-school (BTS) merchandising, revealing when promotions kicked in, the tactics used and the non-traditional retailers jumping into the new school term.

1. Uniform retailers
In the UK, where most schools have compulsory uniforms, BTS retailers can have a tough time. With little leeway in terms of trend, colour or product style, attracting consumers comes down to convenience, quality and price. Marks & Spencer, one time firm family favourite on the UK highstreet, cleverly tapped into all three of those attributes with their BTS email campaign. They were the earliest retailer to push their BTS offering, sending out a newsletter on the 25th June, before schools had even finished the previous semester! The email promoted a 20% discount on uniform items, with prices starting at £1.50. They then reassured consumers of the quality of their product, linking directly to reviews, or “Genuine opinions straight from the customer”. Finally, they tapped into convenience with a banner running along the top of the email reminding customers to order before noon to get free next day delivery to their nearest store. M&S have demonstrated clear understanding of their BTS shoppers’ needs, and got in ahead of competitors in promoting that understanding.

Debenhams also led into their BTS season with sales from the 8th August, leading to 20% reductions on the 18th of this month. Supermarket retailer ASDA offered free delivery on their school offering on the 18th July, compared to competitor Tesco bringing their BTS imagery to their clothing homepage on the 24th July (and childrenswear page 19th July).

Matalan has a broad range of uniform options at exceptionally competitive prices (a lower price spread than both Debenhams and Marks & Spencer). Items such as the Girls Bow Pleat Skirt, priced £4-6 depending on size, was first stocked on the 9th May and ages 4, 5, 6, 7 and 13 have been restocked up to three times already, with five sizes currently out of stock. The 2 pack of 3/4 sleeve shirts priced at £4-7 has also sold well for them. Such core items, with their repeated yearly demand, are ideal products for retailers to compete on price with, placing their orders with factories early and in large volumes to drive down costs.

2. Childrenswear retailers
For the largely uniform-free US and European markets, BTS presents a more varied scene, with the opportunity to promote trend-led childrenswear. Uniqlo have leapt on that this year launching their first ever childrenswear line in time to capitalise on the BTS season. Going online on the 19th August, their range is priced £5.90-£19.90, offering underwear, tops & bottoms, dresses, shirting, sweaters and outerwear incorporating the technical abilities and colour range Uniqlo have made waves with internationally. They began promoting the line in on their UK homepage on the 25th July. We’ll be watching closely to see how it sells!

H&M, who will no doubt be watching Uniqlo’s entrance into the market closely too, launched their homepage BTS campaign on the 14th August, accompanying their attention-grabbing imagery with a 20% discounting offer. American Apparel launched their Back to School campaign on the 11th August. It features a childrenswear edit including rucksacks, plimsolls, leggings and leotards, hair accessories, tees and dresses. Understanding that their youth consumer could also be starting a new term at college or university, their BTS campaign extends into men’s and women’s categories too, with specially shot lookbooks and items pulled into edits.

BTS messaging was notably absent from the campaigns of Abercrombie & Fitch and wasn’t played up in the homepage updates or email newsletters at Macy’s.

US retailers employed some attention-grabbing offline tactics, with JC Penney launching their Joe Fresh kids line in Times Square and Target placing glass-cased ‘dorm rooms’ on the campuses of 5 colleges. Fully-furnished with Target furniture, discounts were handed out at the events. Embracing digital too, in July they created an online dorm room, inviting 5 youth social media celebrities (such as vloggers and online magicians) to take part in a 24-hour, live-streaming dorm, allowing shoppers to interact whilst creating potential new consumers from each personality’s online fanbase.  Kmart teamed up with young rap group Da Rich Kidzz to create two videos, used in commercials and streamed on YouTube. “My schoolbus is my limo” has attracted over 2.6 million views in a month – we’re hooked too!

3. The non-traditionalists
The savviest retailers were those who don’t offer childrenswear, and for whom BTS wouldn’t necessarily be a key date. Taping into this event in their consumers lives places them ahead of competitors who’ve not thought to do the same. Fast-fashion retail is prime for targeting Gen Y consumers starting new terms at college or heading to universities. Urban Outfitters aced this, updating their homepage on the 23rd July to feature homewares and bedding which would appeal to teen shoppers moving out of home for the first time. On the 16th August, they sent a newsletter out referencing college terminology and encouraging their customers to “Major in deals, minor in looking awesome”. On the site, they’ve compiled appealing Back to School sections for men’s, women’s and stationary.

ASOS have tapped into the BTS season with an interesting outfit selector tool featuring 12 items as well as a student street style feature. Topshop opted for a relatively short-lived “Top of the style class” feature on the homepage from 17th August – it ran for only three days. Surprisingly mute on BTS were Forever 21, who are normally excellent at merchandising holidays, and Jack Wills, who could have used the new term to promote their collegiate style. With the relatively low costs of digital campaigns, we expect to see an increased number of non-childrenswear retailers experimenting with BTS next year.