According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spent $54.1 billion on items for school children in 2008—making it the second-largest shopping event in the U.S. behind the winter holiday season.  And although the economy has played a part in many a sluggish sales cycle, this back-to-school shopping season looks promising.  “During our recent survey we found that while moms are concerned about the back-to-school expense, they are still planning on making the purchases.  In some cases, they are anticipating spending more on back-to-school items this year than they did last year,” says Tracey Hope-Ross, VP of Social Media for Mom Central Consulting, 2009 Associate Sponsor of M2Moms®.  That sentiment is repeated in a recent survey by Cookie magazine.  “Based on our recent Back to School Survey, eight in ten Cookie women tell us that they will probably spend the same or more on back to school this year as they did last year,” says Carolyn Kremins, publisher of Cookie.

With so much at stake, it isn’t surprising to see brands rushing to get the back-to-school shopping season underway, but are moms really thinking backpacks and notebooks while they sit by the pool in July?  “Clearly they have back-to-school on their minds already,” says Kremins whose magazine recently kicked off School Year’s Eve with PTA, a national holiday celebrating the entire back-to-school season, with a new website, www.schoolyearseve.com.  Although the site just launched, thousands of consumers have signed up to get a School Year’s Eve party kit and brands such as GAP, Kindercare, Children’s Zyrtec and the Hot Moms Club are sponsors.

Reuters reports the “official” kick-off occurs after July 4th and runs through Labor Day in early September.  “The majority of the moms we talked to in our survey are shopping at least one month before the start of school,” says Hope-Ross.  “A quarter of them are beginning the process 2 months out.”    Earlier this month, Staples, Inc. announced that July 15th is the official start of the 2009 back-to-school shopping season.  Based on more than 20 years of experience in the back-to-school supply industry, Staples analyzed historic trends and shopping patterns to determine the official first day of the season.  For 2009, the start of the back-to-school shopping arrives a week later than in 2008 primarily because students are starting classes later due to the Labor Day holiday and the large number of weather-related closings the previous school year.

But it doesn’t stop with school supplies.  According to Reuters the most popular back-to-school purchases include items such as apparel, shoes and electronics.  And for parents with kids headed off to college, money is being spent on big-ticket items like dorm room furnishings and collegiate branded items such as sweatshirts and bumper stickers.  Which is probably why more and more moms are looking for those “one-stop shopping” options.  “In addition to sales, special offers and coupons, convenience is an important part of the back-to-school shopping strategy,” says Hope-Ross.  “Our survey found the majority of shopping will be done at stores that offer a little bit of everything such as Wal-Mart or Target.”

Appealing to that need for convenience, Target is promoting its TargetLists, a multi-occasion gift and shopping list-making tool designed to make shopping fun and efficient. Using in-store kiosks or accessing online at Target.com/targetlists, students and parents can browse products, create Back-to-School lists, add items and share lists with family and friends. These lists allow parents and students to organize their needs ensuring that they stay on track and on budget.  “At Target we know that the Back-to-School and Back-to-College season can be hectic for families,” says Kathee Tesija, executive vice president, Target. “We strive to make it easy for families by offering the convenience of one-stop shopping and a wide product assortment of affordably priced and stylish products that meet students’ needs from kindergarten through college.”

For brands that have not jumped on the July back-to-school bandwagon all is not lost.  “There are still moms that are searching for great deals just 2 or 3 weeks before the first day of school,” says Hope-Ross.  Last year, OfficeMax launched its “Back to School Penny Deals” in August.  The campaign priced school must-haves such as Elmer’s Glue, crayons and rulers for just one cent.  The office supply giant (still praised for its “Rubberband Man” back-to-school commercial from 2004), launched a humorous campaign for its “Penny Deals” that showed a man attempting to buy everything from steak dinners to a diamond ring with pennies—being told each time that his pennies would not be accepted.  At the time, Bob Thacker, SVP of marketing for OfficeMax stated in a Crain’s Chicago article, “Even the people on the street won’t take a penny.  We explored that and said, ‘Let’s really embrace the penny.’”

Regardless of when the campaign begins, everyone seems to agree that this is an important time for brands to reach out and connect with moms.  “It is the real start of the New Year for families across the country,” says Kremins.  “This is the time of year mom is marathon shopping for clothing, planning meals, snacks and parties, as well as planning vacations, buying a new car for carpooling—the list is endless.”

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