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Making the Grade: 4 Ways Retailers Can Cash In On Back-to-School

Recent projections of 2015 back-to-school spending may require retailers learn some new math – the kind wherein one plus one equals numerous marketing outcomes and teens themselves factor into the equation.

Research by the National Retail Federation indicates that average family spending on back-to-school clothing, electronics and other needs will decline to $630.36 this year, from $669.28 in 2014. These lackluster predictions do not necessarily mean retailers should lose out on sales, however. They may just need to reconsider the needs of the back-to-school shopper and who is influencing his and her preferences.

In part, this requires niching. Rather than dialing out to capture a broad segment of consumers, retailers should consider sharpening their market focus to identify and then meet the demands of smaller school-going segments. Some students play sports, others are artists and many are involved in charities and sustainable activities. Some have after-school jobs. And some do all of the above.

Doing this means recognizing that the event of back-to-school shopping has changed. It’s no longer a mother-child outing shaped by retailers. Now the students themselves have become fashion influencers through a crop of well-watched blogs including Evita Nuh’s The Créme de la Crop, Freddy Rodriguez’s Blue Perk and Callie Reiff’s site.

One review of these influencers and it is clear that captivating these select groups of students requires the creativity to rethink the assortment and merchandising in ways that are relevant. It also takes looking well beyond the obvious – putting lunchboxes and acrylic paints alongside dresses may look incongruous, for example, but to a young fashionista, it makes sense.

Playground for profits

While the strategy of focusing on behavioral niches and youthful influencers may sound elementary, for larger merchants such finessed execution can be arduous, particularly when customer segments vary from store to store. There are, thankfully, ways to cover all the bases.

Target, for example, is testing a program for parents called School List Assist, which features a select assortment of common school products but presents them to meet lifestyle preferences, not so much school needs.

Among the student market segments it identifies are “philanthropic-minded students,” “DIY enthusiasts” (or creative types), and “eco-minded students.” Alongside each of the seven niche groups identified, Target suggests specific products, such as Yoobi school supplies (which donates a portion of sales to charity) and backpacks made of recycled materials.

Photo credit: Target

Photo credit: Target

Target essentially just rejiggered how it markets, first identifying specific student proclivities and then promoting products that suit each. Here are four other ways to build the basket through insights and inspirations:

Extracurricular activities: Fashion retailers with rewards programs can use them to invite members to affordable but attractive RSVP events in their stores. These can range from mother-daughter lunches to fashion shows to photo opportunities that allow students to model their new wardrobes against chosen backdrops. These events turn school shopping into occasions that translate to long-held memories and encourage unplanned purchases that serve as mementos.

Make the grade: Curbside pickup, personal teen shoppers who prepare wardrobes in advance and laptops already preloaded with the latest software deliver needed convenience for relatively small fees. But these small fees add up. Retailers can use their data to identify higher-spending shoppers who are more likely to pay a little extra for such conveniences, and then market these features specifically to them.

Cross faculties: School activities filter into all aspects of a student’s lifestyle, and likewise merchandise can be factored into all school functions. Retailers can promote certain snacks alongside athletic clothing, market special pieces of jewelry to commemorate an important year and give new purpose to everyday items through merchandising and the help of youthful influencers. Enlisting key fashion bloggers or stylish associates (perhaps personal teen shoppers) can materialize new experiences with existing merchandise. Retailers can further rely on these young influencers to understand what is hot or bubbling up. If locker accessories represent a category ripe for expansion, retailers can find ways to play it up.

Don’t miss the bell: Retailers should task store managers with being aware of major school events, from big football games to food drives to themed dances. Prepared in advance, they can build displays centered on these themes that tell local students the retailer is part of their world. In addition, retailers could avail themselves of student-related events hosted by other major, and beloved, brands. In honor of Van’s Custom Culture contest, for instance, mass merchants can add acrylics, sequins and other decorative items alongside the canvas sneakers.

The above ideas require not just some new math, but also a combination of art and science. This is customary in mastering the meaning of customer data as well as new media and the increasingly influential role the target market – students – plays now that they can create their own media platforms.

Executed well, this approach can be applied across a range of retail events, from back-to-school to whatever the numbers add up to.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com, where Bryan serves as a retail contributor. You can view the original story here.

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