Lessons Learned from a Back-to-School Season

Before students return to school to hit the books, they hit the malls, the catalogs, and the Internet in search of clothes and supplies. Hopefully, this year they’ll spend more time on their studies than they’ve spent money on apparel and gear for the new school year.

As of the Labor Day weekend, the back-to-school season looked to be a disappointing one. Several marketers, including Viking Office Products parent Office Depot, warned that sales were below expectations. The National Retail Federation had estimated that families with school-age children would spend on average $442 on back-to-school purchases — 3% less than last year.

But several catalogers are pleased with their back-to-school business. “We’re having a big year,” exclaims Catesby Jones, founder/president of apparel manufacturer/marketer Peace Frogs. Jones says sales at his White Marsh, VA-based company are up more than 25% from last year.

At another marketer of teen apparel, New York-based Alloy, average order values are up 5%, and response increased “probably a good 8%,” says chief operating officer Jim Johnson: “We’re very happy with our performance.”

In the spirit of back to school, let’s see what lessons can be learned from these and other catalogers.

LESSON #1: When others cut back on prospecting, consider ramping up.

Limited Too, an apparel cataloger/retailer targeting girls ages 7-14 — aka tweens — increased the circulation of its two back-to-school mailings 33%, from 6 million last year to 8 million. In August, spokesperson Robert Atkinson described sales as “performing in line with plan” thanks to the circulation boost.

Alloy increased its back-to-school circulation as well as its overall annual circ about 15%, Johnson says. (The company mails 4 million-6 million books a month overall.) But that’s not necessarily in response to circulation cuts on the part of competitors. Because the six-year-old company is still in growth mode, it had increased circulation 15% last year as well. In addition to its flagship teen girls’ apparel catalog, Alloy mails Girlfriends L.A., which also sells clothing for teen girls; CCS, which sells apparel and gear for teen boys; and extreme-sports-oriented catalog Dan’s Competition.

On the b-to-b side of the schoolyard, office supplies cataloger Quill Corp. made a point of “aggressively” increasing circulation to schools and educators this year, says Mark Hammerschick, director of the Lincolnshire, IL-based mailer’s public sector group, which focuses on selling to local, state and federal government agencies, daycare centers, schools, and religious organizations.

Although he won’t share circulation or sales figures, Hammerschick says the goal of the increase was largely “to gain market share in a tough economy.” Sales of arts and crafts supplies, school furniture, and other school-specific materials are up more than 20% from the previous back-to-school season. By comparison, sales of basic office supplies increased a more modest 5%.

LESSON #2: Pace yourself. As of late August, back-to-school sales at Richmond, VA-based Children’s Wear Digest were “slightly below plan,” says president Jim Klaus. Nonetheless, the Richmond, VA-based children’s apparel cataloger isn’t overly concerned: His back-to-school season doesn’t end until late October.

“We have found that customers are waiting longer each year to do their back-to-school shopping,” Klaus says. “September is now the biggest month for back-to-school shopping for us, whereas a few years ago it was August.” After all, who wants to buy wool coats and corduroy pants when it’s 95 degrees outside? (Indeed, retail analysts blamed the hotter-than-usual August weather throughout much of the country for some of the sluggish consumer spending for the month.)

Multititle mailer Lillian Vernon Corp. also realizes that the back-to-school season is more of a marathon than a sprint. That’s why the Rye, NY-based cataloger mailed the Halloween Preview edition of its Lilly’s Kids catalog in July, a few weeks earlier than it has in the past. The catalog, explains spokesperson David Hochberg, included backpacks and other school accessories, “so we mailed it earlier than usual to capture those back-to-school sales.”

LESSON #3: A few well-considered promotions can goose sales. In addition to mailing earlier, Lillian Vernon put a greater emphasis on value and discounts, Hochberg says. For instance, a headline for backpacks in the Lilly’s Kids catalog read “Save $5.00. Personalized Free.” Another bag for kids was promoted as “less than $10.00 each when you buy two.” Backpacks, Hochberg says, have been one of the catalog’s strongest sellers.

Although “we’re not terribly promotional,” says Alloy’s Johnson, the catalog did include a few special offers in most of its back-to-school books — “some free shipping, some ‘buy one at a certain price, get a second at a discount.’” Those offers “generally were successful, but we evaluate each promotion every time to see how it does and if we want to expand or eliminate it,” he says.

Like Lillian Vernon and Alloy, Hingham, MA-based cataloger/retailer Talbots Kids also offers discounts when multiple items are bought, says spokesperson Betsy Thompson. But she describes it as more a matter of passing savings onto the customer, since the per-unit cost drops when a catalog customer orders more than one item. As of August, Thompson says, the children’s apparel division of cataloger/retailer The Talbots has performed “great” even though circulation was flat.

For its part, Quill has used direct mail, e-mail, and telemarketing to promote several sales and discounts. For instance, it offered 15% off purchases of more than $500, Hammerschick says. He would not provide specifics but says the promotion was “successful in driving sales.”

LESSON #4: Then again, maybe you don’t need promotions. Special Selections, a Brentwood, TN-based cataloger of clothes for infants, toddlers, and preteens, steers clear of offering back-to-school discounts and sales. “We’re not looking for somebody who’s seeking the deal of the day,” says president Ross Winchel. “We’ve found that the sale shoppers are higher maintenance, and you don’t make a whole lot of money from them.”

Special Selections typically targets affluent women in their mid-30s and those who are “young grandma age,” Winchel says. The cataloger, which has annual sales of more than $1 million, expects to end the season with flat sales — which is fine, given that it cut back on prospecting because of the July postal rate hike.

LESSON #5: Get creative in your marketing. Limited Too spokesperson Atkinson attributes some of the company’s success to its cross-promotion with The Disney Channel’s Lizzie McGuire program. The catalog was promoted on the cable network in two contests; the first (which was highlighted in the catalog as well), in July, offered a chance to win four-day trip to Hollywood. The second promotion, in August, enabled winners to host a Lizzie McGuire premiere party. Also, members of the Lizzie McGuire cast served as models in the catalog, Atkinson said.

Discount School Supply, a catalog from Monterey, CA-based Excelligence Learning Corp. that targets preschool teachers, ran a promotion with building toys manufacturer/marketer Lego this past summer. A blow-in card in Discount School Supply’s August catalog introduced Explore — The Complete Discovery System from Lego, says vice president/general manager Pauline O’Keefe, who describes the product as “a holistic approach to learning and developing that celebrates the uniqueness of every child.” The flip side of the card offered customers another Lego product at a special price.

LESSON #6: Nothing else matters if you don’t have the right product — and if it’s unique, so much the better. For Lands’ End, “the right product” is high-quality, classic rather than trendy apparel, to appeal to its core customers, who are value-conscious rather than price- or fashion-conscious. Such product offerings have put the Dodgeville, WI-based cataloger’s Lands’ End Kids title slightly above plan for the back-to-school season, says merchandise manager Patti Simigran.

“Our customers are responding well to footwear, especially the All Weather Moc,” Simigran says. “Girls’ athletic wear, convertible pants for boys [pants with zippers around the knees so that they can be converted to shorts], polos and backpacks are also doing well.”

Talbots Kids customers also responded well to the classic styling for which the company is known, says spokesperson Thompson. In particular, she says, stretchy corduroy and other items designed for comfort and easy care have done well.

Both Lands’ End and Talbots Kids sell proprietary-branded merchandise. Such exclusivity gives them an edge over marketers that don’t have unique brands. Likewise, Children’s Wear Digest’s strongest sellers are its exclusives, says Jim Klaus. “For girls, all horse- and equestrian-related items continue to sell very well. For boys, our sports-themed screen-printed long-sleeve Ts have been great this year.”

A manufacturer as well as a cataloger/retailer, Peace Frog has its own line of shirts, hats, and ties. This season the five-year-old company bundled backpacks with several other items, such as T-shirts and hats, and sold them for $29.95, 50% less than the items would have cost if purchased separately. “It’s been a big success,” declares company founder Jones.

At Discount School Supply, its private-label Colorations brand of art supplies “continues to be strong for us,” says O’Keefe, “because we deliver great quality at tremendous value compared to the leading brand.”

And although Special Selections isn’t the only seller of the Zoodles brand of children’s apparel, it is the nation’s largest, Winchel says. As a result, “we’re always selling a lot of that,” he says. But not all his customers are brand-focused: “Ballet-themed outfits are doing well too.”

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