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Only the Essentials

Food retailers had to work harder than ever to promote back-to-school this year, as most consumer surveys indicated that shoppers flocked to discounters for the best deals. With BTS sales figures still being tallied, it remains to be seen whether supermarkets captured their share of the second-biggest selling season of the year. Given the tough economic conditions, the focus for most consumers this

Food retailers had to work harder than ever to promote back-to-school this year, as most consumer surveys indicated that shoppers flocked to discounters for the best deals.

With BTS sales figures still being tallied, it remains to be seen whether supermarkets captured their share of the second-biggest selling season of the year.

Given the tough economic conditions, the focus for most consumers this year was on basic supplies, without any frills or extras. Supermarkets, as a one-stop food shopping trip, were ideally positioned to sell BTS essentials, even though they may have been forced to slash retails on commodity items.

“In this economic environment, every retailer is a discount retailer,” said Scott Krugman, vice president, industry public relations, National Retail Federation, New York, who presented highlights of an NRF consumer survey on the BTS season during a Citi Investment Research call last week.

NFR's research said that 73% of those shopping for BTS went to discounters this year, up from 63% last year. The food class of trade was not listed as a BTS shopping destination choice in this study.

Overall, the NRF survey said consumer spending was up for grades K-12, $594 vs. $563 last year. This includes clothing and accessories, shoes, school supplies and electronics. Back-to-college spending fell to $599 vs. $641 last year. This was mainly due to a drop-off in electronics spending, $444 vs. $513 last year. It appeared that college-age consumers were not spending more than on the basic necessities, said Krugman.

“We definitely think retailers were being promotional-competitive. From an advertising standpoint, retailers were trying to get more aggressive and more creative, tapping into the youth market and realizing that the teens have more spending power,” he said.

Supermarkets pushed the BTS season in their fliers, on their websites and in electronic newsletters, and some even used the selling season to raise public awareness and funding for schools in their communities. For the most part, food retailers offered special discounts to compete with mass market retailers and, when they could, they took advantage of tax-free holidays.

Real Deals
Aware that consumers are more price-conscious than ever before, Ahold's Giant Food of Landover, Md., and Stop & Shop conducted more price promotions on seasonal items in general, not just on BTS products, said Andrea Astrachan, a Stop & Shop/Giant Food spokeswoman in Landover.

“Our Real Deal program offers discounts on various items, based on the season. So, our shoppers benefit from lower prices throughout our store, and also our Real Deal program,” she noted. For example, discounts on pickles, hamburger rolls and other products were offered at lower prices under the Real Deal program this summer.

Consequently, BTS basics were sold at lower price points than in past years, because they are part of the Real Deal program. “For back-to-school, we discounted products more than before,” Astrachan said.

The partnership that Giant Food and Stop & Shop have with Staples — Staples-branded office and school supply sections are in several of their stores — also helped shoppers think of the grocery store as a BTS destination.

We have a partnership with Staples that gives us an opportunity to provide low prices on many of the back-to-school staples,” Astrachan said. In Giant's circular, starting Aug. 22 and running for two to three weeks, the chain advertised special prices on all Crayola products, pencils, Elmer's glue, three-subject notebooks and other basics.

Giant Food and Stop & Shop also promoted eco-friendly BTS and office supplies with in-store signage and in its circulars. Staples' EcoEasy line of products, which includes recycled notebooks and binders as well as recycled ink cartridges, was promoted as an easy way for shoppers to make a difference in helping the environment.

Astrachan said the eco-friendly school supplies are just a natural extension of the growing consumer awareness about “green” products.

“Our customers are increasingly asking for eco-friendly products in a variety of arenas, such as cleaner products. This year, even school supplies are eco-friendly. As moms and parents are increasingly interested in helping the environment, so are kids.”

Many chains also used their websites and e-newsletters to promote back-to-school products.

The home page of Cincinnati-based Kroger Co.'s website featured an ad that read, “Save on Back to School. Find everything on your back to school list.” When shoppers clicked on the ad, a “store locator” page opened.

Also on Kroger's home page was an article that included a list of “essential supplies needed to fill your kids' backpacks.”

Roche Bros., Wellesley Hills, Mass., featured “Back to School Lunchbox Treats” and “Back to School Supplies” on the front page of its late August weekly circular, which is posted on its website. Featured school supplies in the circular included Top Flite 1 subject notebooks for 59 cents each; Academix 10-pack No. 2 pencils for 69 cents each; and 500-count copy paper for $4.99 per package.

Some chains are focused on supporting local schools, to drive traffic for their BTS supplies.

Dick King, vice president of Associated Food Stores, Salt Lake City, said the cooperative's retail members encouraged consumers to buy back-to-school supplies at the stores and donate them to teachers at specific schools, who will then distribute them to students.

“We wanted to do something a little different,” King said. “Usually, our store directors simply work with local schools and ask what their needs are for particular classes. But this year, because of the economy, we developed this program, in conjunction with a local TV station, called SOS — Supply Our Schools.

“We've set up areas in the store where people can donate back-to-school supplies that are available in the stores' promotional areas, and we use point-of-sale signs to encourage that.”

He said it's similar to food drives by local food banks that ask customers to buy items from a specific list and drop them off in areas outside the stores.
He said sales are “doing well, and back-to-school selling is better this year than it was last year.”

Display items include paper, pens and pencils, crayons, erasers, notebooks, backpacks and lunch boxes.

Because some schools around Associated's member stores operate year-round, while others start at different times in August and September, displays went up just after July 24 — which in Utah is a local holiday, Pioneer Day — and will remain in place through the end of the first week of September, King said.

While the Salt Lake City-based TV station with whom Associated is working on the SOS program reaches all of Utah and parts of Idaho and Wyoming, Associated supplies stores in five other states, where it relies on point-of-sale materials to encourage participation in the SOS effort, King said.

The SOS program is an extension of Associated's ongoing effort “to be part of the community and to give back to the community” that supports each local store, King said. “This program helps make sure education is top-of-mind — and it also helps us sell a lot of product.”

This year's offering does not include any new categories or items, “and we don't get into clothing,” he pointed out. Best-sellers include Mead notebooks, filler paper and computer paper, which is sold by the case or the ream.
Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif., launched its annual “10% Back to Schools” program on Aug. 8. The program, which runs through Sept. 9, is a partnership between Safeway and more than 100 food manufacturers to donate 10% of the sales price on 3,000 selected products to the schools chosen by Safeway shoppers.

“When customers purchase any of the eligible products using their Safeway Club Card, they will automatically accumulate ‘school dollars’ for the school of their choice,” according to a statement from Safeway.

Since 2005, Safeway's “10% Back to Schools” program has raised more $8.5 million for schools and education programs in the regions where it operates.

“Our goal is not only to attract back-to-school shoppers seeking lunch box items, but also to attract shoppers who simply want to support their local schools,” said Safeway spokeswoman Teena Massingill. To that end, food and school supplies are not the only categories covered in the program. Shoppers can also give back to their schools by purchasing designated pet care products, household cleaning products, personal care items and over-the-counter medications.

Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., a Delhaize America banner, is also running several school rewards programs. From Aug. 14 to Sept. 17, Food Lion is holding a Labels for Education Sweepstakes, a partnership with Campbell's in which shoppers can enter to win college scholarships and other prizes after buying 10 or more Campbell's products with their Food Lion MVP cards.
The chain also has a partnership with General Mills' Box Tops for Education program, where shoppers can earn extra box tops when purchasing the participating products.

Food Lion's “LionShop & Share” program also allows MVP card holders to designate the school that will receive a portion of their purchase every time they use their MVP card.
Additional reporting by Elliot Zwiebach and Christina Veiders