Maria Rugolo

Maria Rugolo
Director, Industry Analyst, Apparel

As a child, I was always excited to shop for the upcoming school year. The smell of new school supplies and updating my wardrobe with the latest clothes, shoes, and bookbag triggered a fresh and fashionable start. Living in the Northeast, my mom would take us back-to-school shopping in mid-August, as she didn’t want to think about it any earlier.   

Three decades later (insert “wow” emoji), and timing remains the same with regards to when U.S. consumers do their back-to-school shopping for apparel. Over 80% of purchases are made during July and August, with 36% taking place in July and 45% in August, according to Circana’s latest Omnibus survey results. In fact, 86% of shoppers make their back-to-school apparel purchases during tax free periods, which also tend to fall within these two months nationwide.   

Although timing remains consistent, the volume of clothing that parents are buying upfront for the season has changed. Playing into this shift is inflation. The 2023 back-to-school season lands during a period when, overall, 30% of consumers are seeking out better prices for the items they need or want, while another 30% say they are delaying unnecessary purchases. And, consumers are prioritizing backpacks and school supplies over apparel as they look to manage their back-to-school budgets.

While back-to-school shopping is still considered a family outing for many, we are seeing an increase in parents reporting they only sometimes take their children with them on physical store trips to shop for apparel, which is up 8 points this year, compared to last year, on top of the 6-point increase from the prior season. One reason for this change is because consumers are going to stores less frequently as they are buying less apparel overall. 

Given all these behavioral factors, the 2023 back-to school season will follow a similar path as last year. Parents will look to budget their spending and stretch out summer purchases well into the fall, so long as the weather permits. The recommendation for brands and retailers is to align with consumers’ immediate needs to avoid early discounting, especially as those who merchandise fall items earlier could also end up having to discount them sooner.

As consumer purchases become less influenced by retail seasons and more dependent on their own necessary reasons, apparel sales will most likely not make the grade for the back-to-school shopping season in the traditional sense. However, nipping at its heels, the holiday season could potentially pick up any delayed sales – although that season will also face challenges of its own.

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