Figures have historically shown that September is a month when retailers should be drawing customers into stores, as parents hit the shops ahead of the new term. In September 2011, retail volumes grew 0.6 percent month on month due to back-to-school and university purchases (UK National Office of Statistics). It will be interesting to see if this year differs.
Traditionally, the back-to-school period is an opportunity for retailers to deliver great customer experiences at this rather unique time of year. The back-to-school shopping trip is laden with emotion – excitement, anxiety, pride, dread, resentment – and that is just the parents. Some consumers will be overwhelmed with the costs involved and desperate to bargain hunt, others will only settle for the very best for Little Johnny – or maybe Big Johnny as he prepares to leave home for the first time. Either way, shopping trolleys are likely to be laden and there is a real chance to maximise sales and score points with customers by understanding their needs and responding accordingly.
Unfortunately, getting it wrong will not only mean that sales opportunities are missed but there is also likely to be a negative effect on long term customer loyalty. I remember the ritual of visiting Woolworth’s every year – new shorts, new pencil case, new geometry set – that so easily couldn’t have been set if the first visit had been a negative one. And this loyalty doesn’t just apply to the traditional stationery shop any more: the 357,915 new undergraduates (UCAS) this year will be requiring bedding, kitchen utensils, food, clothing, white goods, brown goods, computers, etc. The ritual is hard to break once formed, and highly valuable.
Starting infants’ school, moving to senior school and leaving home for university are all massive rites of passage with all elements of the process being inevitably relayed to friends and family in minute detail – online and offline. This could be a great marketing opportunity or a customer relations disaster! On a positive note, we know that 69 percent of consumers are willing to share great experiences (Empathica Consumer Insights 2011).
Our advice to retailers is pretty straightforward. The critical factors at this time of year are not that different to other times. Ensure staff are empowered and educated enough to provide advice as well as to man tills and to order sufficient stock levels for key products; prevent long queues forming and keep stocked up in core mandatory items. The key difference is that at this time of year the emotional resonance is turned up to 11 – making any let down much more impactful!
Whatever happens in reality this September, the critical discipline is to measure customer satisfaction alongside sales: not just how you perform against a checklist of standards, but how your customers feel. This will enable retailers to understand what really affects consumer behaviour in this very specific annual spending window which will allow better planning next year – and regardless of weather, or any other variable, September 2013 will again bring back-to-school fever.