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Retailers Prepare for Back-to-School Season

Food retailers that incorporate time savings, good deals and community outreach in their back-to-school promotions will earn an A+ from shoppers
Walmart is offering backpacks and other items at “last year’s prices,” according to the retailer.

Here’s an assignment for grocers across the country as the 2023 back-to-school season gets underway: Find new ways to help your shoppers save time and money while promoting health, wellness and happiness. This mission certainly sounds like a heavy lift, but harried parents and stressed-out students need more help than ever as they face busy, on-the-go schedules.

Of course, back-to-school shopping can mean many things for supermarkets, ranging from basic school supplies like pencils and paper to food and beverage items that can be incorporated into bagged lunches, along with breakfast, snacks and dinner. Nonfood products like lunch bags, water bottles and reusable snack bags also make smart additions to the merchandising mix. But ultimately, the more that grocers can offer solutions to make shoppers’ lives easier, the stronger their brand loyalty will become.

[Read more: "Retailers Offering Back-to-School Discounts for Educators, Students"]

Katie Macarelli, manager of public relations at Lakewood, Colo.-based Vitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets, notes that at Natural Grocers stores, “we expand our purchasing and promotional efforts to include how we can truly support our community.” As she puts it, “Back-to-school prep doesn’t have to stop with supplies like scissors and glue sticks.”

Over the years, Natural Grocers has increased its back-to-school promotions, even addressing the topic of boosting immunity in the September 2022 issue of its magazine and online, according to Macarelli. She says that the chain’s efforts have resulted in “positive engagement” from its customers, both in stores and online.

Midwestern supercenter chain Meijer perennially touts convenience and savings in its back-to-school promotions. More recently, the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based retailer has encouraged customers to take advantage of its home delivery, pickup, shop-and-scan, and in-store shopping options, according to Karen Langeland, VP of merchandising.

Meanwhile, for the third consecutive year, Meijer has rolled out back-to-school savings of 15% on school and home office equipment for teachers, and this year the chain has expanded the teachers’ discount to include additional categories such as kids’ apparel and accessories through Sept. 4.

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Walmart school
Low prices are a given at Walmart, but the mass merchandiser is also launching a Classroom Registry to help teachers get needed supplies, along with sensory-friendly shopping hours.

Let’s Make A Deal

While community outreach is important, it’s absolutely essential for supermarkets to offer competitive pricing where they can this year, whether through special sales or through promotions tied to their own private brands. Even though price inflation has been easing in recent months, many shoppers are still very concerned about spending (See sidebar at bottom for more information on back-to-school consumer insights).

Large national chains like Kroger and mass merchandisers such as Walmart and Target are in a league of their own when it comes to competitive pricing. In July, Cincinnati-based Kroger was promoting more than 250 school supplies priced at $3 and under, along with a 30%-off offer on back-to-school gear on its website. Shoppers could also mix and match five or more participating snack/lunch items to save $1 each with a Kroger Plus card, according to a company representative.

Minneapolis-based Target, meanwhile, was selling glue sticks for just 25 cents apiece, and Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart promised school supplies and backpacks at “last year’s prices” while touting Pen + Gear and its other store brands. 

[Read more: "What's Cool in Back-to-School Products"]

Walmart, Target and Seattle-based Amazon also got an early jump on back-to-school sales by highlighting these products during their midsummer sales periods (Walmart Week, Target Circle Week and Amazon Prime Days, all which occurred in July).

In addition to offering such enticing sales, the large chains have recognized the value of offering community support, especially for teachers who often lack needed school supplies. This year, Walmart launched a Classroom Registry that allows teachers to post their supply wish lists via an online registry. The retailer is also continuing its service of offering online school supply lists curated by school districts and/or individual teachers. Further, in a truly unique service, Walmart has begun offering special sensory-friendly shopping hours during the 2023 back-to-school season.

Target, for its part, is offering Target Circle members a 20%-off College Student Appreciation deal from July 16 through Aug. 26, and has expanded its Target Circle Teacher Appreciation Event (also running July 16 through Aug. 26) to give teachers a one-time 20% discount on an entire shopping trip, either in stores or online.

Whether supermarkets offer competitive pricing, convenience or community outreach — or preferably, all three — they’ll earn high marks this year by more closely considering all of their shoppers’ needs. 

  • Shoppers Expected to Spend More and Shop in Stores This Season

    Just in time for the 2023 back-to-school shopping season, several industry groups and research firms have come out with fresh consumer insights that can help retailers in their planning. Here are some highlights from a few of the latest surveys:

    • Consumers are expected to spend record amounts for both back-to-school and back-to-college shopping this year, according to an annual survey released July 13 by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics. Back-to-school spending could reach an unparalleled $41.5 billion, up from $36.9 billion last year. Meanwhile, back-to-college spending is expected to hit $94 billion, about $20 billion more than last year’s record. The increase in expected spending is primarily driven by more demand for electronics, but in the case of college spending, necessities like food also account for more than half of the anticipated increase.
    • Many shoppers are still concerned about the economy — and their shopping patterns will likely reflect that, according to insights from data platform company Inmar Intelligence. Rob Weisberg, EVP and president of incentives and loyalty at Inmar Intelligence, notes that 88% of shoppers surveyed say that their shopping behavior will change as a result of continued economic friction this season. Meanwhile, 72% say that they would switch, or consider switching, to a different brand because of a coupon or discount.
    • Most back-to-school shopping at supermarkets will happen in stores, although a sizable number of shoppers like to shop both in stores and online, according to Inmar Intelligence. Almost half of those surveyed (48%) say that they plan to purchase grocery items in stores, while 17% plan to purchase such items online and 33% plan to purchase these products using both channels.
    • The 2023 Back-to-School Survey from marketing platform Optimove suggests that budget-conscious consumers are willing to invest more in educational needs. Still, more than 70% of those surveyed say that they continue to prioritize price and quality, aligning with trends observed in Optimove’s previous surveys. Pini Yakuel, CEO of Optimove, suggests that retailers build their brand loyalty by “adopting strategies that put customers first, such as attractive loyalty programs and high-value products.” He also notes that having a commitment to education and creating localized programs can strengthen connections with consumers.
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