When it is Back to School Time in Retail

When it is Back to School Time in Retail it is always more of the same

Back to School is Seasonal Retail at its Finest

By Tom Dougherty

When schools all across the country will  and parents can welcome back the sweet smell of breathing room. It is a sure sign that the seasonal retail push has begun.

That means during the coming month retailers will be attracting families as they purchase clothes, electrical equipment, school supplies and whatever else they feel they need to stock for the upcoming school year.

Back to School Time in RetailThe back-to-school season is one of the test times for retailers as they discover whether their brands have created preference or not. All that’s left to do now is execute the marketing messages that represent that brand.

Executing that brand successfully can be more difficult than most imagine. The brand problem retailers face, among many others, is their brands must appeal to a varied audience– the students themselves and their parents – who bring a whole different set of triggers and belief systems that drive their purchasing behaviors.

Varied audiences is a regular issue for retailers, especially when we’re talking about big boxes such as Wal-Mart or Target that seek customers from all walks of life, each with different needs and situations.

Targeting so many audiences is obviously counterintuitive to having a successful brand. Marketing retail and brands work best when they are singularly focused because then the brand represents a true choice, telling audiences who it is for and who it is not for.

The Apple Store, for example, is one of the best at being single-minded. That target audience believes they are special for being a part of it and will patronize the store just to experience it.

As it stands now, the business model of many retailers doesn’t allow for that luxury of focus. They have so much real estate – you can include the Krogers, Costco and the Sears of the world in that group – they believe they can only make a profit by trying to be as close to everything as they can be for everyone.

The Situation in Retail Marketing

But that situation also leads retailers to extremely benign messaging that has little effect on the marketplace. In fact, in the coming months, it is no stretch to think most, if not all, of the messaging will come to: “We have everything you need for the start of school.”

Back to School Time in RetailTo get over that hump, and have a meaningful brand that can appeal to a larger audience, you have to crate preference for the brand of your store. Not for the things you are selling.

And, right now, few in this market has a brand that creates preference, which means target audiences this school season will pick based on convenience or become bargain hunters.

No wonder. That’s what they have been trained to do by the retailers themselves.

A theme line does not make a brand by itself, but a quick examination of the brands and their theme lines looks like this:

Wal-Mart: “Save Money. Live Better.”
Target: “Expect More. Pay Less.”
Kroger: “Costs Less to Get More.”
Sears: “Good Life. Great Price.”

It’s no wonder consumers have been trained to shop on price. Because of that, Wal-Mart continues to dominate the category. They are the default choice when everything else is equal.

Going into the school retail season, so many retailers play the price game – which is why it’s called a “sale” – they will end up with the same market share they had last year, and potentially even less. The needle will have not moved.

Similar Retail Promises

It gets worse. The similarity between messages isn’t just exclusive to those retailers mentioned earlier, as even Ross plays the low cost game with “Dress for Less.” But, there is also only a sliver of a difference between JC Penney’s “Every Day Matters,” American Eagle’s “Live Your Life” and Kohl’s “Expect Great Things” in terms of emotional meaning. (And even then it’s flat and expected.)

Back to School Time in RetailNordstrom’s “Reinvent Yourself” is a meaningful position, one of the best in the industry, but Dillard’s has adopted a similar theme of “The Style of Your Life” that’s not even as persuasive.

In office supply, Staples’ “That was easy” is at least different from its nearly identical main competitors: Office Depot and OfficeMax.

The point is that consumers opening their wallets to get ready for school are left with no reason to show any brand loyalty, leaving retailers in the trap of competing strictly on price and location.

An emotional, meaningful, focused brand is the long-term solution to this problem, as it creates emotional preference regardless of the shopping season when it’s done right.

Few retailers want to be different

In that light, it’s shocking that so few retailers have taken a serious crack at it. The opportunity to take market share is enormous if only someone would take it.

Target is never going to catch Wal-Mart with a near identical message. Macy’s, JC Penney’s, Kohl’s, Belk, Dillard’s and all the rest blur together so perfectly that consumers can’t tell them apart. (Especially because, at some locations, they are located side-by-side.)

Back to School Time in RetailSo what’s a retailer to do with the upcoming back-to-school season? Retailers are trying to appeal to two audiences with often wildly different emotional drivers.

Our own research has shown that the students are interested in fashion, whether it’s clothing or the backpack they’ll be lugging around. Parents are interested in utility, putting the pieces together to make up a whole that best takes care of their children.

Even the retailers who understand this don’t take the next – and most important – step. To create preference, retail brands must then ask themselves why those values (fashion, utility) are important to those audiences. It’s here, asking the why, where retailers always fail and, therefore, end up looking and sounding and feeling alike.

Even the good ones stay at the fashion and utility spot without aligning themselves with the emotions and belief systems that makes those values important.

Do retail better

Think of it this way: The Apple brand is certainly about innovation, but Apple doesn’t stop there and talk about innovation. (Like another powerful brand, Nike, Apple doesn’t talk about the technology.) It understood the reason why consumers would be attracted to innovation – because having it makes them special.

Back to School Time in Retail“Think Different” is where Apple, today’s most powerful brand in the world, began and it’s where it sits now.

The situation facing large retailers is that none of them have taken that next step so that they are preferred during the back-to-school season and the holiday season, or any other season.

So, when preparing for the school onslaught, our prediction is that retailers won’t see a shred of change. The result will be the same as last year, and will likely be repeated next year.

Maybe that’s good enough for some. But not for those who want to transform the market by working with someone like Stealing Share. (Read a detailed market study on Retail here)