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First Daze of School

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C. Engdahl
The Big E of Big E Toys

'At every level in any company, workers need to understand that in the Experience Economy every business is a stage, and therefore work is theatre.' ' from The Experience Economy by B. Joseph Pine II & James H. Gilmore

The new school year officially began this morning for my family. Fortunately my older kids had no problem catching the bus.

For retailers the Back-to-School ritual actually began months ago. Shortly after taking receipt of back-to-school supplies, retailers like Target, Wal-Mart, and others, put the goods on their floors for consumption hoping parents and kids would choose their store over other options. To be honest, I wasn't paying that much attention at the time, but I'm fairly certain the pencils, paper, erasers, and folders reared their heads just after the July 4th holiday. Maybe even before.

At the end of the last elementary school year, as in years past, our family like others at our kids' elementary school, were given the option to 'pre-order' school supplies for the next year. No hassles. No waiting. Place the order. Pay your money. Then pick up the supplies in their neatly packaged box at the pre-Labor Day school open house.

Despite the obvious appeal, like every other year, we decided to forego this option. For some reason, I feel compelled to go shopping.

In a society that's become highly automated and driven more and more it seems by convenience, I'm still a sucker for a good experience that defies these elements. Although I buy an occasional book online for instance, especially for something hard to find, I still drop significant coin at brick and mortars like Barnes & Noble, Borders, and some local shops. Just this past weekend in fact, my daughter and I bought seven books at a local Half Price Books, and even stopped in at Barnes & Noble just yesterday to pick something up. The tactile experience of browsing physical shelves and buying a book live-and-in-person is much more appealing to me than a few clicks on a keyboard. I genuinely love walking into bookstores.

[All this book talk reminds me of one of my favorite bookstores by the way. I'm from Minneapolis, but if you're ever in Denver, stop in at Tattered Cover Bookstore.]

Back-to-School shopping is for reasons not entirely clear an annual ritual that I can't help be drawn to. To some extent this is driven by my kids' desire to dive head first into the experience. My daughter in particular loves the annual ritual. Back-to-School shopping is however for me a more appealing thought, than an actual quality experience. I'm sure I'll look back in fondness, with a touch of sentimentality, when my kids are grown and gone and I'm no longer afforded the opportunity to push a cart loaded with supplies with them in tow. Right now though, when I stop to think about it, the real-life experience of buying school supplies actually sort of sucks.

I recognize part of this is my own fault. I'm usually a bit tired and often thinking I have other things to do. And sometimes the kids are tired too and can't seem to stop pestering each other. And then of course there's the added element of keeping an eye on (or rather chasing around) my not yet school aged son while simultaneously helping my other kids pick out supplies. There's also the fact that I look for functional supplies while my kids want cool. It's a constant struggle. And invariably we forget something and therefore must return to a store. Or need to visit a different store (or multiple stores) for one reason or another. Needless to say I emerge from the experience, like a good Richard Linklater film, a little dazed and confused. It's what memories are made of though I guess.

I'm not willing however to take all the blame for the deficiencies of the overall Back-to-School shopping experience.

It doesn't seem anything could be more bland and uninspiring than walking into a store these days to buy school supplies. Maybe my expectations are too high. But shouldn't the in-store experience be as fun and exciting as the Back-to-School ads on television? Instead the supplies are usually strategically crammed into the back corner of the store so you're forced to walk by everything else. (I understand retailers are hoping you see other items to purchase while you're headed for the school necessities. I feel a bit manipulated. Then again, perhaps I should view this walk as simply part of the overall experience and enjoy the journey.) This placement also makes it utterly annoying when you've forgotten something and have to trounce back to no-man's land for a single item or two.

For something for which retailers have substantial time to prepare, I guess I expect the Back-to-School shopping experience to be at least slightly more inspiring. There's room for innovation.

I'm no merchandising expert, but how about:
1) Footprint decals (or animal tracks, or treasure seeking dotted-lines culminating with a big 'X' to mark the spot, or at least something) on the floor to help guide shoppers in the right direction. I'm not suggesting people actually need such guidance. But wouldn't this make the journey to the back of the store a bit more fun, at least for the little ones in particular?
2) A map (could be as simple as a photo-copied piece of paper) of the store that indicates where specialty items ' like scientific calculators, gym locks, fall sports items, hand sanitizer, etc. - might be found.
3) Refreshments in the school supply area. Give the kids some Kool-aid. Mmmm. Maybe even a snack. Mmmm, Mmmm. Might make them linger longer and even remind them they've got some grocery shopping to do. And better yet, give the parents some coffee. I've certainly seen my fair share of adults that could use a cup.
4) Point of purchase displays at checkout that simply ask 'Did you forget anything'? and then lists a bunch of items that maybe weren't readily available in the school supply area ' facial tissue, lunch and snack supplies, rain boots, swimsuit for gym class, etc. Maybe even remind parents of the importance of a healthy breakfast before school and suggest some items from your grocery department. Get creative.

At the very least, do something different. Inspire us. Strive to get families to visit and stay in your store because they want to, not because they have to. Help us adults make some good memories for our kids.

A Halloween store opened near my house a couple weeks ago. The big chain retailers will likely put their wares out too now that school has started. I wonder what kind of experience this will be. Could be scary. I hope so anyway.

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