The back-to-school season, typically one of the most profitable for retailers, is on hold while states wrestle with reopenings as coronavirus cases surge across many parts of the country.
California has already announced students will begin learning virtually this fall, but New York plans to reopen regionally depending on infection rates — at least for now. As a result, parents are considering whether to pare down on fall purchases or delay buying entirely.
“When parents prepare their kids to actually go to school, it creates a big bump in volume,” said Seth Campbell, corporate president of BBC International. “If the pandemic prevents kids from physically going back to school, then this will certainly have a negative impact on sales and demand for new apparel, footwear and other items.”
In light of the uncertainty, rain boot brand Western Chief has switched gears — focusing on outdoor-centric messaging themed around gardening, outdoor play and visits to the pumpkin patch instead of back-to-school. “We are anticipating more buy now, wear now. We also are expecting to see the demand for rain boots continue as kids spend less time in the class room and more time outside,” said Kristin Raber, national sales manager of Western Chief.
According to children’s retailers, athletic shoes will be the season’s biggest bright spot, regardless of school reopening plans, with many kids ready for a new pair of sneakers after extensive summer wear.
Sneakers are a wardrobe essential, said Sherri Tanner, owner of Buckles in Atlanta, who predicted dressier styles will be put on hold.
Although Tanner said customers remain reluctant to shop in-store, she has no immediate plans to lure them with promotions, instead sticking to her existing five-star rewards program that provides a future discount on dollars spent. “I’m not doing any [additional] sales — they will then be expected,” she said. “My [personal] service is worth paying full price.”
Similarly, Emily Goldenberg, owner of GoldenBug Children’s Shoes in Oakland, Calif., said she’s not ready to offer incentives to spark back-to-school business, despite doing just 30% of normal sales through curbside orders during the store’s recent three-month closure. “I’ve canceled orders on specialty shoes [such as dress styles],” she said. “I’m holding on to sneakers and casual shoes. As [people] shelter-in-place, customers are buying essentials. They don’t need Mary Janes and dress shoes.”
Like Tanner and Goldenberg, Margot Wasserman, GM and buyer for Tip Top Shoes in New York, expects back-to-school sales to focus on athletic shoes, as well as slippers — another wardrobe essential as kids spend more time indoors. While the store has always done a healthy slipper business, she noted that just last week she placed an at-once order for the Ugg Fluff Yeah style, which has been a strong seller, in addition to slippers from Sorel and Steve Madden.
Although business remains challenging, Wasserman is also sticking with the store’s traditional back-to-school promotion policy that includes an e-mail blast to customers with a discount code that offers savings based on the amount of purchase. “If you shop early, you save,” she said.
At Lonnie Young Children’s Shoes in Nashville, owner Randy Coffman is counting on promotions to light a fire under his business. The state has a tax-free period scheduled for July 31 to Aug. 2, that includes footwear. He said it always generates strong sales. “It’s like a zoo here normally,” he said, noting sales taxes in his area are 9.75%. “Some people load up.”
Amid a coronavirus spike across Tennessee, Nashville students, who normally return to the classroom in early August, will be remote until at least Labor Day.
And since Coffman has been forced to limit the number of shoppers in-store, he plans to capitalize on the tax-free weekend by offering a 10% discount the full week prior. “Hopefully, that will offload some of the craziness [typical] of those weekends,” he said.
For Eddie Quintana, owner of Miami’s Sesame Step, this selling period is focused on private school sales, which account for 80% of his seasonal business. Since the sector has not yet determined its reopening position — with Miami now being deemed by health officials as the new coronavirus epicenter — Quintana requested that deliveries from b-t-s-centric brands, such as Sperry, Hush Puppies, Stride Rite and School Issue, be postponed.
“Originally, we asked to hold all deliveries, since we get quite a bit of merchandise and would have to store it,” he said. “If kids don’t go back to school, no one is going to buy a black Mary Jane or penny loafer.”
While the retailer is taking a wait-and-see approach with some brands, other players have also notified him that overseas shipments are running behind.
“Luckily, we carry a fairly large inventory of uniform shoes all year, so we have a decent amount of [stock]. But, if schools start opening up, we will run out of goods to sustain us,” Quintana said. And the retailer is continuing with his annual back-to-school promotion, offering a $5 discount coupon with the purchase of each pair, sent out to families by individual schools in conjunction with the store.
Lonnie Young’s Coffman also is banking on Nashville’s private schools to help bolster sales, and he noted there are over 20 such schools in the area. According to Coffman, they are projecting Aug. 17 as their reopening date. However, he emphasized, “Who really knows if they’re actually going back.”
And should kids’ bedrooms turn out to be their classrooms this fall, Coffman is confident they will still need a fresh pair of kicks. “But as far as a kid coming in and buying saddle oxfords, that likely won’t happen,” he added.
However, Coffman added, the key to consistent selling is keeping his doors open: “The hardest thing is selling curbside and from pictures of shoes.”