Psychology a key part in back-to-school shopping for parents

Amy Koile loves back-to-school shopping for her kids, especially her 9-year-old daughter.

"New clothes and school supplies give her the confidence she needs to feel like she is prepared for the new school year, and in turn makes me happy knowing that she is excited about school," says the Yulee, Fla., mother, who also has a son in preschool.

Parents may not be able to control how well their kids do in school, but they often feel they've paved the way by filling kids' backpacks and dorm rooms with supplies, or buying the electronics that are now often as important as the fashions.

The ever-growing and multibillion-dollar back-to-school and college shopping season is not driven only by needs — a 10-year-old can't fit into Crocs for a 9-year-old, after all — but also important psychological hurdles tied to life's big transitions, such as moving from elementary to middle school or high school to out-of-state college.

"Back to school has become a little bit like a Hallmark holiday," says Ken Nisch, chairman of the retail brand and design firm JGA.

The season fills the all-important gap between spring and summer and the holidays, says Nisch, "even though the consumer in many cases isn't ready to buy."

Many young people want to wait until school starts to detect the latest trends before investing in a wardrobe, and the economy further encourages waiting for better sales, Nisch says. That's led retailers to "create this mythology" about dorm rooms and gotta-haves for grade school, he says.

August retail sales, out Thursday, showed predictions about a lackluster back-to-school and college shopping season (mid-July through Labor Day) were largely on target. Sales were down 2% at the stores releasing numbers, says the International Council of Shopping Centers, but that was the best performance since September 2008. The results, which compare with a pre-economic-meltdown August last year, still underscore the growing importance of the shopping season, the second-biggest for retailers after the holiday season. And retailers are hoping that a later-than-usual Labor Day shifted some sales to this month.

Back-to-school shopping, tracked separately from college spending, increased about 18% from $14.8 billion in 2004 to a predicted $17.4 billion in 2009. From 2003 through 2009, college spending — on everything from clothing to computers but not including textbooks — nearly doubled, from $16.7 billion in 2003 to an estimated $30 billion this year, according to BIGresearch.

One of the drivers of the spending surge for both: shopping psychology.

Parents use off-to-college shopping to picture their child's environment, to feel more in control of the transition and to be with their child through a shared activity so everyone has a chance to process a new level of independence. As parents buy and consider items, they're imagining their kids using them, and it helps them feel more secure.

This also happens when shoppers consider purchases of any sort. In short, shoppers take a mental trip into the future. In addition to helping us figure out what to buy, those excursions help to anticipate and prepare for the future. And that in turn gives us a greater sense of control. It's not just the things we buy that make shopping so alluring during transitions and changes; it's also the shopping itself.

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