Pencils, notebooks, backpacks - America is ready to go back to school, and retailers can't wait. And can you blame them? Back-to-school is the second-largest shopping period of the year, topped only by Christmas. After a sluggish year of sales so far, back-to-school sales are in full swing, with stores and companies pulling out all the stops to bring in customers. So what crazy marketing tactics will you find this year?

In Pictures: 6 Ways To Fund A College Education


Chasing Millennials and Generation Y
If you think back-to-school shopping is just about erasers and lunch boxes think again: these days, it's all about the tech gear. Millennials (those born around the year 2000) and college-bound Generation Y students are accustomed to carrying cell phones, laptops and other mobile devices - and retailers are vying for those high-priced purchases. Apple (Nasdaq:AAPL) is directly aiming for the college crowd: any college student, faculty or staff member who buys a Mac gets a free iPod Touch through September 7, 2010. (Check out some of the best financial apps your can get for your smartphone in 5 Financial Apps Worth Buying.)

In a similar attempt to attract a young, tech-savvy crowd, JCPenney (NYSE:JCP) is hoping to connect to teens with a marketing campaign focused on online interaction: kids can post their latest purchases online, and browse new looks from their mobile devices.


Competition is heating up among e-reader merchants as well, with prices on the Amazon (Nasdaq:AMZN) Kindle, Barnes & Noble (NYSE:BKS) Nook, and Sony (NYSE:SNE) E-Reader continuing to drop. Times may be tough for parents, but retailers count on them opening their wallets when it comes to buying their kids the latest gear.

It's Free! Well, Almost Anyway
We all love a freebie, and retailers bank on that in their marketing ploys - just look at American Eagle's (NYSE:AEO) latest marketing tactic. As long as you try on a pair of their jeans, you get a free smartphone, like the Blackberry (Nasdaq:RIMM) Curve or LG Ally. There is a catch, however: to get this freebie, you have to sign up for a two-year service plan, which is anything but free. The offer started July 21 and will run through the end of September.

Motorola is hoping to cash in on back-to-school tech buying by giving away its Motorola (NYSE:MOT) Charm, a phone geared toward texting. For the younger crowd, Toys "R" Us (NYSE:XKE) is giving away a free lunch kit when you buy a backpack.

So why all this free stuff? Retailers know that once you're in the store, you're more likely to spend your back-to-school dollars there. Plus, most discounted or free tech gear comes with service plans, pricey accessories and the like - all at a nice profit to the retailer.

Slashing Prices
There's nothing like a sale to create a sense of shopping urgency among consumers, and retailers know it. Staples (Nasdaq:SPLS) rang bell at the Nasdaq stock exchange July 14, declaring it the beginning of the back-to-school shopping season; the retailer aims to lure customers in with its penny and dollar sales, with hopes that they'll stick around to buy pricier laptops, service plans and other office gear. (Just because it's cheap doesn't mean it's a deal. Read Attention Discount Shoppers: Don't Buy Just Because It's On Sale.)

Apparel retailers like Kohl's (NYSE:KSS) and Sears (Nasdaq:SHLD) have slashed prices to entice parents to buy their kids' apparel in the stores. To put more pressure on these merchants, online retailers are competing with brick-and-mortar stores even more this year, offering free shipping and discounts that make competition for consumer dollars fiercer than ever, which is great news for shoppers looking for a deal.

Forget the Tax
To give consumers a break (and increase brick-and-mortar store sales at the same time), many states are offering weekends where shopping is free of sales tax. These sales tax holidays are mostly limited to the Eastern part of the country, and sometimes have limits on the items and amounts you get a tax break on. Still, when you're buying junior a laptop and gear for college, no sales tax is a nice break, and one that consumers are likely to take advantage of. (For more tips, see 12 Ways To Shop Smarter.)

The Bottom Line
With the 2010 back-to-school season just beginning, the verdict is still out on how successful these marketing tactics will be. Some analysts predict a spike in sales from pent-up demand; others say that joblessness and a closed-wallet mentality will make this shopping season disappointing. With spending expected to be highest in August at 41%, only time will tell how retail sales numbers will pan out. Until the end of back-to-school deals in September, take advantage of these marketing tactics to save yourself some money.

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