Wal-Mart's back-to-school and college ads "speak to the emotional side of what moms are feeling during this period, since they know they can not physically be there (at school), and that a step toward helping their son or daughter to succeed is to get them as prepared as possible," says spokeswoman Melissa O'Brien.
The "fuzzy rug and a cute bedspread" may have lost some appeal in this economy, Nisch says, but parents are now "focusing their anxieties on communication and connectedness."
Smart retailers have raked in back-to-college sales with every possible electronic device to help keep parents and kids connected.
Wal-Mart reports increased sales of cellphones in July and August to moms looking for devices to help them send text messages to kids in college. Andre Sam, a Best Buy manager in Manhattan, reports an uptick in parents coming in to buy technology to "help them stay in touch with their children."
Staples says it has many "transition tools," including phones that make video calling easier, webcams that work between desktop and laptop computers, and video picture frames. And just in case parents forgot to get something for their kids, a Target store in Los Angeles is even sending an express bus to pick up UCLA freshmen on Sept. 23 for a private shopping event.
The back to school and college shopping season "is an indicator of the winners and losers and who's best at giving young customers what they're looking for now," says Kevin Mansell, CEO of Kohl's. "It's also a connector to families."
In addition to the attraction of shopping as a means of mental rehearsal, shopping during life transitions also calms anxiety. As pleasurable as most transitions can be, there is always stress and anxiety in the unknown. Because shopping is a "doing" thing, it fosters a sense of control.
"I have these warm, fuzzy feelings about shopping before school, particularly for school supplies," says Mori Mickelson, 49, of New York City. "It really was a big deal for us growing up."
Retailers are standing by to satisfy every possible need. "Back to school has always been a big time of year for Staples, but now the entire store is relevant for back to school," says Staples President Mike Miles. "It's much more than traditional school supplies. The notebook computer is every bit as important as the notebook binder."
While for parents, back-to-school shopping is often about staying connected to their children, for the kids, it's about being connected to each other. Their purchases are a gigantic example of their powerful instincts to belong and connect through clothes, cellphones, backpacks and sneakers.
"The two most important days of the year are the first day of school and the last day before Christmas break," Sarah Mitchell of Chicago said when she was still in high school. "What you wear the first day of school kind of sets up who you are and, you know, first impressions and all. Then, the last day before break you want to wear something good because that's how people will remember you."
Now, however, Mitchell is a freshman at the College of Wooster in Ohio and finds fashion is taking a back seat. "It doesn't seem like that big of a deal now," she says.