There seems to be curiously little demarcation amongst retailers between marketing educational software to primary and secondary age groups and their parents. Admittedly there are scattered retail outlets that specialise in selling, for example, to the under-12s, such as the 5-12 shops; but, by and large, the retail chains do not have separate primary and secondary marketing approaches. Furthermore, they tend both to position primary and secondary product side-by-side on their shelves, and to sell to customers in the same polite but anodyne way regardless of what they want. There are hopeful signs that as time goes on things will become more demarcated.
So this article will concentrate on how retailers are rising to the challenge offered by the educational software market; a follow-up in our next issue will analyse the views of publishers specialising in this area.
If there are any retailers who are not yet addressing the educational software market, or only paying it lip service, they should seriously reconsider their position. There is one very good reason for this. Amazingly, our notoriously tight-fisted government is actually putting large sums of money into information technology for schools, and it's having a considerable beneficial knock-on effect on the educational software market. Yes, I know it's hard not to be cynical, but the Department of Education's (last published) Statistical Bulletin for 1995 makes very heartening reading.
This bulletin summarises a survey carried out to determine the level of provision and use of information technology in schools in England, and its contribution across the curriculum.
The figures are, for a goverment-funded report, pretty unambiguous, with little sign of massaging. When it came to the primary sector, the average expenditure in cash terms on IT equipment was u5,650 per school (u32 per pupil) in 1993-94, compared with u2,600 and u300 per school in 1991-92 and u300 in 1984-85 respectively. The figures for the secondary sector were equally encouraging. The average expenditure in cash terms on IT equipment was u23,950 per school (u29 per pupil) in 1993-94, compared with u15,450 and u2,250 per school in 1991-92 and 1984-85 respectively.
That's a total of nigh on u200 million being spent annually by schools, and most of the money is coming from central government via local authorities.
And if these figures have already doubled every two years for the last couple of survey periods, it's not unreasonable to assume that they also went up 100% over the next twenty four months. For it seems that if there is one area no major political party can be seen to be cutting back on, it's in expenditure on IT for schools.
It's too much of a political hot potato.
There might well be some retailers thinking: "even if we can bring ourselves to believe such figures, much of the software and hardware being soaked up by the English school system is being sold direct, and therefore we profit not one jot." True, but there is one further statistic that should get those cynical retailers looking at the other side of the coin. Nearly all pupils, not just the brightest or those from upper socio-economic groupings, are now getting regular hands-on experience - at least 94%.
Once again, it does not take too much of a leap in logic to see that with an increasingly computer literate population of youngsters, and with an increasing use of micros in schools, the following is likely to happen:-
(i) Young people of school age might actually want more software for home use to back up what they are interacting with on their screens during their school day; especially if that home-based software is fun as well as informative.
(ii) Even if they do not, their parents will probably see the need to augment what they are receiving on the school curriculum, in order to either make them as computer literate as possible, or to help them catch up if they are slipping behind their class mates in a particular subject area.
(iii) Consequently, those parents and those kids buy at retail. The big question is: are you ready?
CRN faxed 12 questions about the market to a number of retailers; ten agreed to respond - Granada Rental & Retail, Dillons, WH Smith and sister company Waterstones, Escom (RIP), Hammicks Bookshops, Toys R Us, Beatties, Guildhall Leisure and the 5-12 Fun Learning Group.
How important is explicit educational content when selling titles - or should it be well hidden behind the entertainment values?
The great majority of participants, like Sara McKee, marketing director of the now defunct Escom, felt that "educational content is extremely important". However, most also felt that the pill should be sugared, and the educational side of the package should not be explicit; at least not to the child.
Suzanne Egleton of WH Smith seemed to express the consensus view most eloquently when she said that ''the aim is to look fun to the child, i.e. con them into thinking it is not educational, and look educational to the parent, i.e. the purchaser - a clever combination."
Only a couple of respondents advocated a tougher policy on their software's content. Guildhall Leisure was one of those who were convinced that it was important to call a spade a spade; and the fact that they are both a publisher (of the 10/10 range) and a retailer might have some bearing on this approach. Their marketing spokesperson, Maureen Fraser, told me that "the 10/10 software range is educational and NOT edutainment or infotainment; it is therefore very important that the educational content within is made clear."
However, as a nice postscript to this question all seemed to agree that signs like "National Curriculum Approved", helped both retailers and parents in their selection of suitable educational software.
Granada, Dillons, Beatties, Toys R Us, and Waterstones could all be said to share Granada's policy when it comes to this aspect of the marketing of educational software. Mike Noble of Granada made it very clear that Granada's educational software range ''consists of titles considered to have a wide family appeal''. Likewise, Clare Studd, promotions manager of Dillons UK said "we cater for all ... age groups." Waterstones, however, slightly broke rank because it goes for an equally universal approach but "with an emphasis on the concerned parent."
WH Smith, Escom and Hammicks, on the other hand, primarily focus on selling to parents. As Suzanne Egleton of WH Smith said: "Parents ... hold the purse strings. Kids are keen only to buy games titles - the likes of Doom - and not educational product. We therefore do not focus on them."
With Escom, educational software is one part of the package promoted to parents for, as Sara McKee said, "The message to the parents highlights the educational value of owning a multimedia PC - i.e. it helps your child with his homework and implicitly improves his chances of achieving at school."
Guildhall Leisure is playing a clever two-handed policy, in that, although ''the 10/10 software range is targeted at teachers and parents ... the range is attractively titled and packaged in an effort to entice the children." 5-12 Fun Learning - on this point, at least - advocates kiddie power.
Managing director Clyde Hunter reckons that the kids themselves are the "ultimate choosers/arbiters."
Apsley Nailforth said, with great pride, his company Toys R Us "pioneered selling both educational and games titles side-by-side", and is sticking to itsguns. After all, "if something's so successful, why change it?" Why, indeed. As it so happens, both Guildhall Leisure Services and Beatties subscribe to the Toys R Us view that retailers with the right interior layout and approach can sell both educational and games titles within very close proximity. Maureen Fraser, in charge of marketing for Guildhall, pointed out that its own 10/10 range (of educational software) "is currently selling well in Electronic Boutique, Game, John Lewis, Comet and a number of independents."
WH Smith said it is "the perfect outlet to sell educational software.
We have the name on the high street that parents can trust - our profile is perfect. WH Smith is also not games focused, which makes us more credible."
While not stating that it is "perfect", 5-12 definitely implied that when it came to the selling of educational software it could not be bettered.
Clyde Hunter said "our whole business is children's educational retailing.
All of our staff are involved with children's educational software, as well as books, arts and crafts, educational games and toys, etc."
Sally Taplin of Waterstones also fell into the unequivocable category.
Taplin said: "my opinion is that for quality titles and excellent customer service, bookshops are the best and natural choice for parents and others."
WH Smiths's Suzanne Egleton said: "Price is fairly important. Customers are still tight fisted at the end of the day. Quality product is, however, is still very important."
Sally Taplin of Waterstones felt strongly that "current prices are prohibitively high. Consumers feel they are being punished for wanting quality titles." Escom's Sara McKee is in little doubt that from "a retailer's perspective price is key. Given that the vast majority of software titles are published on CD-ROM there is a perception by consumers that these titles should be similar in price to music CDs, i.e. at u19.99 they can be an impulse purchase. Once they reach u49.99 and above they become a considered purchase for the family." It fell to Guildhall's Maureen Fraser to point out the Catch-22 trap that can befall a retailer when it comes to the vexed question of price. "Too expensive, and no matter how good the program you'll price yourself out of the market. Parents have limited resources. Too cheap and you'll belie the quality of the content of the product. Hence the 10/10 range retails at u14.99 - an affordable price point."
"We simply aim to be the cheapest." said Toys R Us' forthright representative, Apsley Nailsforth. Arthur Smith of Beatties was his usual succinct self.
"Price is very important." Hammicks' Ian Ramsden Morris was nearly as pithy but at least he qualified why he thought price is very important; i.e. "price is very important when a shop is in competition with direct selling, as are discounts." Although the response from 5-12 Fun Learning was somewhat ambiguous, I felt pretty sure that what company spokesman Clyde Hunter was saying from the statement - "software is expanding at about 25% in value, but considerably more in volume because software RRPs are falling" - is that overall punters are still getting more value for money.
What do you think of educational software publishers selling directly to schools?
And as a retailer, do you, by any chance, sell on your range of software to schools?
Traditionally speaking, if there is anything guaranteed to get the hackles of most retailers rising it's the thought that they are being cut out of the sales and distribution chain.
However, there are signs that retailers in the second half of this decade are not losing so much sleep over being occasionally bypassed for as WH Smith's Suzanne Egleton says: "Selling direct to schools is a small threat to retailers.
It can, however, work the other way, as it can encourage kids to buy titles if they have seen them at school. It is the suppliers that gain in the long run on this approach."
There are those lucky retailers who have managed to bite off a chunk of the action concerning school sales. Ian Ramsden Morris of Hammicks is in no doubt that selling to schools is "very important; and it adds to the range of services that Hammicks offers." 5-12's Clyde Hunter was prepared to tell me that school sales for his company already count for a signficant 20%. Encouraged by these sort of figures, other retailers who participated in our feature made it plain that they were beginning, or at least planning, to jump off the fence and wade into the direct sales battle.
Granada is a case in point. Their representative, Mike Noble, said "we have not actively promoted software into the education sector at this stage, although plans are in place to do so."
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