For parents, psychology is key in back-to-school shopping

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.

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.

Generation Y (which includes tweens, teens and twentysomethings) loves individuality, but groups are still formed — or at least aided — by possessions. In fact, for many Gen Yers, anti-brand brands or thrift-store finds are the connection. Just as one group of Juicy Couture-loving sophomores may scoff at the kids who wear Goodwill goodies, the latter group may hold in equal contempt the carefully selected Juicy garb of the former group. Connecting by not buying a brand is as powerful as connecting through a brand. The medium is still retail.

Given the time they spend online, it's little surprise that they know about — and want — the latest and best in products and fashion. Teens spend about four hours each school day devoted to technology-related activities, and nearly half of teens' activities are driven by technology, according to research conducted by the Consumer Electronics Association. Young people in the '70s, for example, didn't have the same level of information about style options. The '70s popular fashion and style culture pretty much revolved around Seventeen, Glamour and a couple of other magazines.

That change, combined with non-stop marketing messages, can create a dilemma for parents. "I don't want my kids to be the Luddite kids in the class," says Andrea Heiland, a Parker, Colo., mother of three who blogs at about personal finance. "But you can't submit and buy everything out there. It's not a good lesson for them."

Clothing and possessions also provide a common denominator through which Gen Yers can talk to and about each other and the world around them.

Jade Koile, whom her mother, Amy, calls a "9-year-old fashionista," got her new school wardrobe from Kohl's this year. It's from the Abbey Dawn line designed by rock star Avril Lavigne. This was "quite a change from last year, when all she wanted was Hannah Montana everything."

Even with six kids ranging in age from 4 to 16, the Fox family of New Albany, Ohio, looks forward to back-to-school shopping.

With 4-year-old Eli starting five-day pre-kindergarten and 11-year-old Noah celebrating a 25-pound weight loss this summer, there was plenty to make the process exciting. Even though 16-year-old Emily says back-to-school clothes are becoming less important to her as she gets older, she had to have a new pair of Gap jeans. And, well, some sweaters and tank tops from Urban Outfitters. "My family loves going back-to-school shopping because it's a fresh start … and it's really fun," Fox says.

This article is adapted from Gen BuY: How Tweens, Teens and Twenty-Somethings are Revolutionizing Retail by Kit Yarrow and Jayne O'Donnell, published this month from Jossey-Bass, an imprint of Wiley.

TELL US:What do you enjoy most or like least about going back to school and shopping?