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Returning to school after the long summer break is a time for mixed feelings. While the nation’s parents will be relieved that their children will finally be occupied, new research from Mintel on seasonal shopping shows that this comes at a cost, as Britain’s parents splashed out just under £1 billion (£915 million) on the great school return last year. This makes back to school the third biggest spending seasonal event in the UK, beaten only by Black Friday and Christmas.

According to Mintel research, keeping kids kitted out is top of the class for back-to-school spending as school uniforms and shoes made up almost half (48%) of market spend in 2017, adding up to £436 million. The next top two spending areas were sportswear, which made up 18% of sales and accounted for £164 million, and the ‘other’ category (with items such as computing equipment and lunch boxes), representing 16% of the overall total and worth £143 million in 2017.

Mintel research highlights the rising cost of returning the nation’s kids to school, showing an overall increase in individual spend on essential items such as uniforms, sports kits and bags. The average parent spent £273 on uniform, shoes, sportswear, bags and stationery in 2017, compared to £218 in the previous year, an increase of 25% in just one year. What is more, parents spent £127 on school uniforms alone in the run up to the 2017 school year, compared to £93 in 2016.

When it comes to back-to-school shopping, supermarkets (33%) are the nation’s number one port of call. However, Mintel research reveals only 9% of shoppers* purchase items from a department store; meanwhile, one in seven buy from an online-only retailer (14%) or specialist school retailer (13%).

Chana Baram, Research Analyst at Mintel, said:

“Back to school is a major shopping event for the nation’s retailers, beaten only by Black Friday and Christmas. Spending on back to school is being driven by rising inflation, the increased cost of childrenswear and stationery, and a boost to the back-to-school population caused by a previous boom in birth rates and the decision to raise the school leaving age to 18 in 2015.

“There has also been a trend among school students to want more ‘fashionable’ stationery and school accessories, which adds to costs. And parents are willingly buying more branded school items, including bags and coats, perhaps influenced by the various back-to-school advertising campaigns focused on branded goods.

“Currently supermarkets are the preferred place to purchase back-to-school items, with parents attracted by the convenience of being able to buy all school items in one place. Other retailers could benefit from offering a wider variety of school-related products to help make them more appealing to busy parents.”

Quality comes first

Quality of the items is the most important factor for parents, with 40% of back-to-school shoppers saying they would like to see improvement in this area. And even though younger children are more likely to need new uniforms and shoes more often, 43% of parents with children aged 6-12 still feel that quality is important. Running out of sizes can be a frustrating affair, as more than a third (36%) of shoppers are looking for improvement in stock availability; meanwhile, 34% would like to see more consistent sizing.

Finally, Mintel research finds that back-to-school shopping peaks in the last few weeks of the summer holidays: over two-fifths of parents (41%) stock up 2-3 weeks prior to the start of term making this the most popular back-to-school shopping time. But for just under one in ten (8%) parents, back-to-school shopping is something of a rushed affair, with dads (10%) more likely than mums (6%) to shop in the last week of the summer holidays.

“There tends to be a flurry of back-to-school spending in the 2-5 week period before the start of the new school year. The period a few weeks prior to the new term is therefore a prime time for retailers to focus on back-to-school promotional and marketing activity. During this time, retailers can help parents by placing all school-related items from clothing to stationery, in one distinct area to make any last minute trips quick and less stressful.” Concludes Chana.

*These shoppers are parents of children aged 4-17