NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- The end of summer may bring groans from students, but small businesses catering to this market are looking forward to back-to-school season.
Back-to-school spending, including sales on electronics and computer equipment, school supplies, shoes and clothes, is expected to rise 2.6% this year after spending declines the past two years, according to IBISWorld.
The season is a great time for small businesses to play up their local knowledge and expertise when attracting customers.
Estimates by the National Retail Federation call for back-to-school spending to top $68.8 billion on grades K-12 and for those in college. If shoppers spent the full amount at local retailers, $46.8 billion of it would be reinvested into local economies, according to projections based upon The Andersonville Study of Retail Economics in Chicago.
That means better schools, better roads, more support for police, fire and rescue departments and stronger local economies, according to Independent We Stand, an organization promoting support of local businesses.
"The best thing that small business can do is deliver superior customer service that you don't always get in the big-box chains," says its spokesman, Bill Brunelle. For instance, "really stand out by knowing what the local school system needs for the second-grade class in terms of pocket binders. That local knowledge cannot be easily replicated at the big box stores."
Small businesses should also get involved in the community and school services whenever possible. Getting involved bolsters company recognition, Brunelle says.
While small businesses have ample opportunity to attract and win consumer retail dollars, they also have a huge opportunity to serve schools, campuses and students in other ways, experts say. An example: Educational software startup Kno attracts college-aged students by replacing traditional college textbooks with e-books on Apple's iPad.
Here are 10 other small businesses finding opportunities with students and educators:
1. Toppers Pizza
To outsiders, it may just be another pizza chain, but Toppers Pizza has figured out a way to gain a cultlike following among the college crowd. While Toppers Pizza didn't start out catering to college campuses, the company realized quickly it was -- believe it or not -- an underserved market. The company did its due diligence on understanding what its target market wants in a pizza store and geared its marketing toward a fun, hip image.
The now 28-store franchised company is experiencing rapid growth (it plans to double its number of stores by the end of 2012), mainly in the upper Midwest, by appealing to the 18- to 34-year-old crowd with late-night hours and valued-oriented offerings.
Scott Iversen, director of marketing for Toppers Pizza, says about half of its stores are in college communities.
"Both myself and several other executives grew up in the Domino's system, so we were familiar with how successful you could be on college campuses. There really wasn't a brand out there that was catering to that demographic," he says. "We try to really bring something fun to the pizza-buying experience." A signature menu item is Topperstix -- popular with the college crowd because of its value, Iverson says. The cheesy breadsticks are sold in single orders, but Iverson notes it's the triple order of 24 sticks with three dipping sauces that is most popular.
"The triple order is a lot of food for right around $10," Iverson says.
Toppers kicks into high gear during back-to-school season
"We get into the freshman orientation packet. We actually have a couple of vehicles branded and we go around and help students move in. We show up randomly at places and drop off free food," Iverson says. "It's really important every year to attract freshman on college campuses. We do a lot to try and get in front of them and be their brand of choice for the next four years."