How to Stand Out and Retain New Consumers in the Back-to-School Shopping Chaos

Stores have only gotten bigger with more product stocked than ever

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Over the last 20 years, one of the constants that I observed in my work with major retailers to establish customer loyalty is a consistent five- to seven-point decline in customer satisfaction beginning the end of July and running through Labor Day. Initially, this was easy to write off as a statistical anomaly, but over time I’ve come to realize that this is an especially challenging time of year for engendering high levels of customer satisfaction. Eventually, I developed a term to refer to this decline: back-to-school syndrome.

Two things typically happen during the back-to-school shopping season that contributes to back-to-school syndrome. First, the influx of customers at that time of the year lengthens lines at the checkout register, in some cases doubling the time it takes to pay. Second, Many of these additional customers are unfamiliar with your store (or at least the location in your store of the items a child needs to start the new school year). Some of them may actually be first-time shoppers. Many of them will need help finding specific items they want to purchase.

Think about this last point for a second. When was the last time you visited a Target or a Walmart to purchase a lunchbox for your son or daughter? Maybe once in the last five years? Suppose you had to go there tomorrow to purchase one. Where would you find it in a store that big? When I was in grammar school my mother would take me to our local store to get my lunchbox before I started the upcoming school year. That store was smaller than the dining area at a typical McDonald’s. You could find anything there in no time. Not so with today’s typical mass merchant.

This search process for most customers, even those who are familiar with your store layout, can be frustrating and lead to back-to-school syndrome. This sense of exasperation is often compounded by a member of the staff who, after encountering a frustrated customer looking for lunchboxes, will respond by saying, “It’s in Aisle 3” or “It’s at the end of the houseware section,” and then walk off.

If you aren’t careful, the sales gains you achieve during back-to-school can come at the expense of diminished revenues over the long-term with your most loyal customers.

The challenge retailers face during the back-to-school shopping period is navigating how to attract infrequent customers (or regular customers who may not be familiar with the location of items needed to send a child off to school) and capitalizing on the opportunity for increased sales without allowing those sales to come at the expense of a poorer experience for frequent customers that form the backbone of the business over the course of a full year. If you aren’t careful, the sales gains you achieve during back-to-school can come at the expense of diminished revenues over the long-term with your most loyal customers.

So how can you play it smart and take advantage of this short-term uptick in business while minimizing any adverse impact on your more frequent, loyal customers. Here are a few suggestions for avoiding back-to-school syndrome.

Staff up. The great Yogi Berra probably put it best when he said, “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” Traditional labor scheduling metrics that relate labor hours to sales revenues will not apply when incremental volumes are being driven by customers who need more time and attention than the customers who frequent your stores at other times of the year. You will need to have more help on the floor during the back-to-school shopping period than you would normally require for a similar amount of sales volume in March or April.

For many retailers, the items that are purchased during back-to-school are easy to identify and form a narrow subset of the total merchandise offerings. If this is the case for your business, you might consider creating a temporary back-to-school department near the front of your store. This department would contain 70–80 percent of what back-to-school shoppers require. By placing this section as close as possible to the entrance of your store, you make it easier for the back-to-school shoppers who may not be familiar with your store layout to spot it. This will also help keep other areas of the store open for year-round customers.

Recognize that even experienced shoppers often have no idea where items such as lunchboxes and backpacks for carrying school books are located in your store. Answers like “They’re in Aisle 3” will not work for a customer who has already spent 10 minutes trying to find something. If there ever was a time for walking the customer directly to the product they want to purchase, it’s during back-to-school.

Involve your store employees in identifying solutions that may work for your specific clientele and retail concept. I continue to be amazed at the creativity of the employees who interact with customers on a day-in, day-out basis. They understand them and, more importantly, they want to do a good job for them. In my experience, successful companies listen to their employees and take full advantage of the insights they have to offer, particularly during high-traffic events like back-to-school shopping.

The back-to-school shopping period provides a tremendous opportunity for increased sales and new customer acquisition. Prepare for the event by ensuring your business is properly staffed, strategically placing your back-to-school items and keeping your valued employees involved in the planning process. In doing so, you’ll easily avoid back-to-school syndrome and propel your business toward revenue gains and enhanced customer loyalty.