Where, When and What Families Are Buying This Back-to-School Season

When a heat wave earlier this month brought almost 100-degree temperatures to New York City, retail traffic slowed at Tip Top Kids Shoes on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “The heat was definitely not conducive to selling,” said Margot Wasserman, manager of the independent retail store.

The hot weather all across the country has hit at a crucial time for the children’s market, when families were beginning to gear up for the new school year. In much of the South, such as in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, kids will head back to class during the first week of August.

A 2019 report from RetailMeNot found that most retailers (84%) believed that Amazon’s Prime Day on July 15 and 16 marked an important time for back-to-school shopping. Sales during the 48-hour period surpassed the previous Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined, according to the e-tail giant. That happened in part because the company extended the promotional event over two full days for the first time.

But nationwide, the busiest time for school shopping is late July and early August, according to Deloitte’s 2019 “Back-to-School Survey.”

A number of retailers noted that parents are making their purchases closer to need than ever before. “It’s shifted to more of a buy-now-wear-now mentality, with a lot of the shopping happening just a few weeks before school starts — and even past the first few days of school,” said Shannon Rodriguez, director of children’s apparel and footwear for Zappos.com, which is beta testing a new web portal for the kids’ category.

As a result, parents and kids are on the hunt for shoes that are versatile and can be put to use immediately. So far, sneakers are lining up to be the hot item once again.

The Styles to Buy

“We’re going to see the major athletic brands do well this year,” said Beth Goldstein, fashion footwear and accessories analyst at The NPD Group Inc. “And some of the retro players that have been doing well might make a bigger splash this year, too, like a Fila or Champion.”

Seth Campbell, SVP of business development at BBC International, which produces shoes for Champion, Tommy Hilfiger, Polo Ralph Lauren and others, said, “We are feeling positive about the back-to-school season. Our branded portfolio aligns with the continued importance of ’90s details. We have captured those heritage trends and uniquely translated them within our brands.”

According to NPD, the sport leisure category accounts for 60% of the kids’ footwear market year-to-date, and sales for the category are up 6% so far.

Brian Burnett, GMM and SVP of North Carolina-based Rack Room Shoes, noted that, in addition to tried-and-true sneaker labels like Nike, Adidas and Puma, the family footwear chain is seeing demand for Vans. “They’ve been around forever and have been a really good base business for us, but now they’re on a different trend standpoint,” said Burnett. “Vans is dominant in the women’s space, but we have a good kids’ and men’s business with them, too.”

Vans ComfyCush Era Kids Sneakers
Vans ComfyCush Era kids’ sneakers.

Meanwhile, Tip Top Kids, which expects its BTS season to kick off the week before Labor Day, plans to continue to offer a plethora of sneakers for boys and is introducing a wider selection of sneakers for girls. “We have some fashion high-tops we’re bringing in, and from Steve Madden, we have takedowns from the women’s line, such as a heavy-duty sneaker that we’re trying for the first time,” said Wasserman.

Outside of sneakers, retailers said other top items for the season include Crocs clogs and classic ballet slippers for girls, as well as traditional Mary Janes and laceups for uniforms. For later in the fall, boots from Timberland, Dr. Martens and Sperry are expected to be popular sellers.

Predicting the Impact

Overall, insiders were feeling overwhelmingly positive about the selling season, and recent predictions back up their enthusiasm . . . somewhat.

Deloitte’s forecast calls for a slight increase in the total spend for the season to $27.8 billion, up from $27.6 billion the previous year. However, the National Retail Federation was more skeptical in its outlook. Its research (conducted with Prosper Analytics) suggests that families with kids K-12 will spend less overall this year — about $26.2 billion — despite the fact that per-family spending will likely rise to a record level of $696.70, up from $684.79 last year.

While many might claim that as another sign of a retail apocalypse, NRF explained that the drop in total expenditures is tied to the fact that fewer families surveyed had children in grades K-12.

And in fact, when it comes to the children’s market, especially the BTS season, traditional retailers continue to capture the majority of the business. According to Deloitte, 56% of purchases this year will occur in-store (on par with 2018), compared with 29% through online retailers.

Burnett pointed out that Rack Room Shoes and other brick-and-mortar stores offer parents an important service. “During back-to-school, most kids need new shoes and they need to get their feet measured, so that is a component that you don’t have online,” he said.

Wasserman agreed: “Even if a parent comes in and says my child is a size 10 or 11, we always make sure to measure the child’s foot because it makes us more credible to show that we still do that and it makes for a better fit. Every brand, every shoe runs different, so by telling the customer [what will fit best], they walk away feeling like this was a good experience.”

Sales Pitch

Before customers even walk in the door or log on to the website, retailers are striving to create an emotional connection with parents and kids through their marketing.

Zappos, for one, went with a retro advertising tactic to build excitement about BTS and its new kids portal, Zapposkids.com. It created a 36-page physical catalog featuring children and teens dressed in head-to-toe outfits to offer style direction for the season. The books are being mailed now to 500,000 existing customers who currently shop for kids’ products.

“We thought that the catalog was a unique and creative way to engage and inspire our customers with something different that we haven’t done before,” said Rodriguez. “As busy as families are, it allows them time to sit together and pick out some outfits and styles without the stress of running from store to store. So we thought it was more family engaging.”

Meanwhile, the growing advertising trend of using nonprofessional models is prevalent in the children’s business this season.

As part of Rack Room’s ongoing Real People initiative, the retailer searched for families that shop in its stores to appear in its campaigns. “We’ll feature the family stories throughout spring, fall and holiday, but for back-to-school, it’s just about the kids,” said Burnett. “It’s their chance to show everyone what the must-haves are for school.”

Similarly, GapKids has launched a seasonal ad campaign, called “Forward,” that stars real-life children age 5 to 13 with talents in music and dance. The company said it wanted to “celebrate creative self-expression and the kids who are breaking boundaries.”

Rack Room Back-to-School Campaign
Rack Room Shoes features real-life customers in its ad campaigns.
CREDIT: Rack Room Shoes

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