- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2003

It’s not too early to be thinking about school. At least that was what Office Depot officials hoped was on parents’ minds as they kicked off their national back-to-school marketing campaign last week, less than a month after the last school year ended.

“Shopping for back-to-school supplies is always a stressful time,” said Brian Levine, an Office Depot spokesman. “We thought we would present this early to ease the stress so they can get stuff early.”

Office Depot began running television and radio spots July 7 — three weeks earlier than last year, Mr. Levine said.

The reason for the early marketing effort is twofold: to increase sales overall and “to build that brand recognition for us,” Mr. Levine said.

The school-supplies industry is expected to reach $7.7 billion this year — a 5.3 percent increase over 2002, says the School, Home and Office Products Association. School supplies include everything from notebooks, pens and calendars to calculators, textbooks and backpacks.

Office-supply stores like Office Depot and Staples account for about 29 percent of all school-supply sales, while mass merchandisers and discount retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart make up about 42 percent of sales, the association says.

“There’s always competition for retailers to be first [with advertising] for a new season,” said Ellen Tolley, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. “Retailers want to be first in the consumer’s mind — but understand that the market may not have developed yet and the demand isn’t there.”

The back-to-school season, which seems to start earlier each year, is a precursor to the much-anticipated holiday season when retailers bring in most of their revenue.

“[Back-to-school] is not as extreme a season as Christmas is for toy retailers,” said Marci Grebstein, vice president of media and consumer marketing at Staples. “But for eight to 10 weeks, it’s a good portion of our sales.”

Staples is prepared for the back-to-school season, but Ms. Grebstein says the company is advertising on a market-by-market basis depending on when students go back to school.

The company’s general managers find out when school begins in their local communities, and Staples adjusts its advertising accordingly, Ms. Grebstein said.

Places like Florida, Georgia and Texas, where some children go back to school in early or mid-August, will be the first areas targeted.

Ms. Grebstein expects advertising in the Washington area to begin in early August.

Staples has about 1,500 stores, including 70 in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.

The back-to-school season also is second to the holidays for HP, formerly known as Hewlett-Packard. The company started offering a $499 personal computer with speakers, printer and monitor package geared to families for the back-to-school season.

Focusing on the season this early in the summer allows new buyers to get acquainted with their computers before school begins and targets the vacationers who won’t be around later in the summer, said Bruce Greenwood, HP’s director of product marketing for North America consumer computing.

Both Wal-Mart and Target are stocking their back-to-school displays and expect the season to take off over the next several weeks, officials say.

Although consumers prefer going to mass discounters for back-to-school shopping, Ms. Grebstein says, her company has an advantage because it specializes in the supplies year round. Mass merchants tend to run out of stock earlier, she said.

Office Depot’s ads will continue to run through September to reach the parts of the country that start school at different times.

The company would not disclose the cost of the advertising campaign, which was created by BBDO New York.

Office Depot does not break down its sales but said the back-to-school products make up a “significant portion of our third-quarter overall sales,” Mr. Levine said.

Office Depot, with nearly $13 billion in sales annually, has more than 870 stores in North America, including 34 in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

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