GO
Loading...

Retailers poised for good grades on back-to-school sales

Vitalina Rybakova | E+ | Getty Images

Around the country, many summer camp counselors are just learning their campers' names, but retailers' shelves are already stocked with fresh No. 2 pencils and crisp backpacks.

It's back-to-school time already. Although some kids in the Northeast have only just jumped off the school bus a few weeks ago, students in the southern half of the country begin heading back to their classrooms in mid-August, and retailers are at the ready to get them prepared.

There's a lot at stake. More than $84 billion was spent during the seven-week, back-to-school shopping season in 2012.

"Customers are telling us they want to have an early jump on things," said Demos Parneros, Staples North American Stores & Online president. "People come back-to-school shopping incrementally ... making two or three trips."

And stores need to make the most of those trips. Retailers consider the middle of July through Labor Day back-to-school shopping season. It's retail's second-most important selling period, and it often sets the tone for its most-important Christmas holiday season.

There's reason to be optimistic this year. Since last back-to-school season, unemployment is lower and consumer sentiment is at its highest level since before the recession, both of which are expected to lead to stronger back-to-school sales. ShopperTrak estimates that sales and foot traffic will increase this August by 4.3 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively.

"On the whole, more people feel better about their financial situation than they did last year," said Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak, which measures the number of people shopping at stores. "Parents are ready to spend on their children's necessities."

(Read More: Pumped Up Kicks? Sneaker Sales Soar)

Early indications may point to increased back-to-school spending, but it won't be done without a careful plan. A National Retail Federation survey of more than 5,700 adults found that consumers will do comparative shopping research online at a record-high rate in the survey's history. It also found that they plan to do the least amount of comparison shopping using retailer's physical advertisements.

Back-to-School Promotions

While it's inevitable that children grow and pencils wear down, back-to-school isn't always a slam dunk for retailers, and competition gets tougher with every passing year. Retailers are pulling out all the promotions—often all at once—from low-price guarantees to offers for curbside pickup to reward schemes that benefit schools picked by customers—basically whatever it takes to win business.

Sears is offering eCoupons redeemable either in store or online, in addition to programs that allow customers to buy items online and pick them up in store. As an added perk, a store associate will even bring the purchases out to the parking lot so you never have to get out of your car.

Best Buy has its sights set on the older student, and its back-to-school promotions kicked off in June. The consumer electronics retailer is offering gift cards with the purchase of a Windows 8 tablet and $100 off an Apple iMac as special deals, among other deals.

Many shoppers don't really care what brand of school supplies they buy, so retailers have to compete on price, squeezing margins even more. This week, Staples begins its back-to-school promotions, including packs of erasers, index cards and pens for a penny.

(Read More: Wal-Mart Threatens to Pull Out of DC)

"They are traffic drivers. We want to win the customer's trip to the store, it's hard to pass up a penny deal, and most customers spend far more," Parneros said.

Even governments are adding incentives for consumers. This year, at least 17 states will offer shoppers sales tax breaks for back-to-school. Twelve will occur between Aug. 2 and Aug. 4.

Back-To-School Tax Holidays

State
Dates
Items Covered
Alabama August 2-4, 2013
Clothing-$100 or less;
Computer/Computer supplies-$750 or less;
School supplies-$50 or less;
Books-$30 or less
Arkansas August 3-4, 2013
Clothing-$100 or less;
Accessories- $50 or less;
School supplies
Connecticut August 18-24, 2013
Clothing and footwear-$300 or less
Florida August 2-4, 2013
Clothing, footwear and accessories-$75
or less;
School supplies-$15 or less;
Computers-$750 or less
Georgia August 9-10, 2013
Clothing and footwear-$100 or less;
Computers/computer supplies-$1000 or less;
School supplies $20 or less
Iowa August 2-3, 2013
Clothing and footwear-$100 or less
Lousiana August 2-3, 2013
Personal property-$2,500 or less
Maryland August 11-17, 2013
Clothing and footwear-$100 or less
Mississippi July 26-27, 2013
Clothing and footwear-$100 or less
Missouri August 2-4, 2013
Clothing-$100 or less;
School supplies-$50 or less;
Computer Software-$350 or less;
Computers/supplies-$3,500 or less
New Mexico August 2-4, 2013
Clothing and footwear-$100 or less;
School supplies-$30 or less;
Handheld calculators-$200 or less;
Computers-$1,000 or less;
Computer supplies - $500 or less
North Carolina August 2-4, 2013
Clothing, school supplies-$100 or less;
Sports equipment-$50 or less;
Computers-$3,500 or less;
Computer supplies-$250 or less
Oklahoma August 2-4, 2013
Clothing and footwear-$100 or less
South Carolina August 2-4, 2013
Clothing, accessories, footwear;
School supplies, computers,
Personal items
Tennessee August 2-4, 2013
Clothing, school supplies-$100 or less;
Computers-$1,500 or less
Texas August 9-11, 2013
Clothing, footwear, backpacks;
School supplies-$100 or less
Virginia August 2-4, 2013
Clothing and footwear-$100 or less;
School supplies-$20 or less
Source: Federation of Tax Administrators, Sales Tax Institute, State Governments

Who's Poised to Win

Beyond the pricing, retailers are hoping to lure in shoppers with fresh twists on the products. They're betting big on bright: Shelves are stocked with neon-colored notebooks, tablet carriers and apparel.

While apparel shopping tends to happen later in the season, several analysts project Macy's will be a top destination for back-to-school shoppers.

"Macy's is winning the game in all respects. Online, fashion, price ... and has no real direct competition in its space. It just keeps bringing in more and more product that appeals to the back-to-school shoppers from children's and teen to collegiate," said Jan Rogers Kniffen, a retail consultant and former May Department Stores executive.

J.C. Penney may be not a clear favorite for back-to-school, but it's nonetheless going to be carefully watched by Wall Street.

JPMorgan analyst Matthew Boss is keeping a careful eye on Penney and Kohl's for back-to-school. In a note to investors, Boss said J.C. Penney continues to strategically rebuild inventory for back-to-school, and strength for Penney could be troublesome for Kohl's. Boss is forecasting positive same-store sales for July though he expects profit margins will continue to be pressured.

Kniffen is also predicting positive sales for the struggling department store. "Penney will run its first back-to-school positive store-for-store sales in three years. You have like that," he said.

Because parents are buying everything from rulers to sneakers to lunch boxes, big box retailers Wal-Mart and Target are often shoppers' favorite destinations for one-stop shopping.

Kids may not be ready to trade in their camp T-shirts for school uniforms, but for parents who are ready to fill those backpacks, retailers are ready.

—By CNBC's Courtney Reagan. Follow her on Twitter @CourtReagan.

Symbol
Price
 
Change
%Change
JCP
---
KSS
---
TGT
---
WMT
---
SHLD
---
BBY
---
SPLS
---
AAPL
---
M
---

Featured

Retail