Back-to-school buoys B.C. bricks-and-mortar retailers

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. At least that’s what some retailers are saying in the face of what annually is one of the biggest shopping seasons.

“Back-to-school is our biggest time of year,” said Kami Dhari, general manager at Staples on Broadway. “We call it our Christmas.”

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Back-to-school is rivalling the winter holidays as the top shopping season.

Parents spend 58.2 per cent more on back-to-school shopping than on holiday gifts, according to a 2017 Angus Reid poll.

“This is our biggest ordering season,” said Lara DePauli, owner of the Vancouver-based Little Earth Children’s Store. “I’d say it increases 50 per cent for us in the months of September and October.”

For DePauli, the benefit comes from the length of the back-to-school season. The holiday shopping season lasts just one month, whereas back-to-school shopping can last two to three months. Not only is the initial shopping season longer, but parents also come back throughout the year to replace outgrown or damaged purchases. When DePauli first took ownership of Little Earth Children’s Store, she didn’t expect the sales rush that back-to-school created.

“When we first opened we didn’t do back-to-school,” DePauli said. “People just started asking us, ‘Do you have backpacks? Do you have lunch containers?’ And we were just like ‘Wow, this is great; this is what sells year-round.’”

School supplies spending isn’t slowing down either, with sales expected to increase by 4 per cent in Canada and British Columbia leading the way in that growth, according to a report from EY.

Dhari said the digital world is playing a bigger role in the back-to-school bonanza, with students seeking tablets, laptops and other tech supplies. What surprises him is how little technology has affected other aspects of Staples’ business. The store still sells as many binders, pens and notebooks as it did in the past.

“As a person selling paper and pens for a number of years, I always thought I would see [a sales decline].”

For Kristy Brinkley, owner of the retailer and manufacturer Redfish Kids Clothing, Christmas is still the hottest sales season. Brinkley said the business usually sees a 30% jump in sales during the back-to-school season compared with a 40 per cent to 45 per cent increase in sales at Christmas. The holidays are still bigger because they are not limited to parents shopping for their children.

Despite the rise of e-commerce, back-to-school shopping is still concentrated in bricks-and mortar locations. According to a 2018 Deliotte report on the U.S. back-to-school market, households spent on average US$292 in stores, 154 per cent more than the US$115 they spent online. However, while in-store spending is still greater, back-to-school online sales continue to rise. People are most likely to do their back-to-school shopping at mass merchants, dollar stores and online-only retailers.

Dhari has seen this at his Staples location.

While people still like to come into the store, online shopping is becoming more popular.

The family experience that has evolved around the back-to-school shopping season has helped to keep shoppers in stores.

“There’s for sure a certain ceremonial aspect to doing your back-to-school shopping; it’s kind of a big deal,” Brinkley said. “Even my own kids who are in private school want to go and get something just to celebrate the season even if it’s not for school itself.”

Both DePauli and Brinkley are trying to beat their online competition by providing unique products and experiences to their local customer base. DePauli achieves this by developing a relationship with her customers and her community.

“Amazon [Nasdaq:AMZN] can’t replicate community,” DePauli said. “ I hear this more and more – people come here because they know us, they like us, we know their kids, we know their names, we know what’s going on in their lives. We listen to them, and you can’t get that on Amazon.”

Brinkley has made a point of offering locally sourced and ethically made clothing to differentiate Redfish clothing from mass-market products.

– With files from Tyler Nyquvest

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