Greg Maloney: Why Back-to-School Shoppers Prefer Bricks and Mortar

Shopping online just keeps getting easier. As deal sites abound, shipping prices fall away, inventory endlessly expands and it begs the question: “Does anyone load the kids up in the family car and drive to the mall anymore?” Turns out they do—and especially when school’s about to start. A recent survey shows that 90 percent of American households plan on doing their back-to-school shopping at physical retail stores this year, according to research from the International Council of Shopping Centers.

The explanation for this anomaly may have less to do with the convenience of the shopping itself than with the quirks of shopping for school-age kids. For Catherine Langell, mother to eight- and 12-year-olds in Dunwoody, a suburb of Atlanta, a trip to the mall is actually easier than shopping online. “Kids are influenced by their friends and they know exactly what they want and where they can buy it,” she says. “As fast as kids grow, parents know kids need to try on clothes and shoes in the stores to avoid returns—so online shopping is just not practical.”

For bricks-and-mortar retailers, this is very good news. Back-to-school spending is expected to generate $74.9 billion in sales this year, according to the National Retail Federation. On average, a family with kids in grades K-12 will spend around $670 on back-to-school gear, from iPads and mechanical pencils to shoes and backpacks.

Back-to-school season, running from mid-July and through August, is the second most profitable shopping season of the year, behind the holiday season. Like buying holiday presents, back-to-school shopping is a must for most families, and many shopping centers now implement back-to-school marketing programs and events on par with the traditionally more elaborate holiday marketing programming than the simple back-to-school activities of years past.

Knowing their stores will be crowded, retailers will go the extra mile to make connections, taking proactive measures to enhance the overall shopping experience. Many have launched tween-targeted events like concerts and celebrity appearances. And, of course, they’ll reach out to parents with price promotions that can’t be matched online.

Julie Rickey, director of Retail Property Marketing for JLL, says this year she’s seeing the back-to-school season broken into several shopping experiences. “It’s not just a one-stop trip anymore; families are averaging about four visits to their local shopping centers.”

She points to promotions like My Day, My Way, a JLL social media campaign at properties like Windward Mall in Hawaii, which will award customers with a VIP experience at their local back-to-school events, including preferred parking, front row seating at the center’s fashion show, beauty makeovers and more. Promotions like this are proven to drive traffic and increase sales, Rickey says. Alexandria Mall (which JLL manages) is using this promotion for its second year to bring the community together with fashion and shopping as parents and students get ready to head back to the classroom.

Does the surprising back-to-school strength signal resurgence for bricks-and-mortar shopping? Shopping centers sure hope so. ICSC spokesman Jesse Tron says stores are making a comeback. “Pent-up demand has propelled sales,” he says. “This momentum will continue into the holiday selling season.”

Greg Maloney is president & CEO, retail, Americas for JLL. Contact him at greg.maloney@am.jll.com or on Twitter: @Greg_Maloney.