With competition in back to school heating up on both price and quality, and the total value of the market falling, which of the key players will go to the top of the class?

What does back to school mean for retailers?

The back to school period is lucrative for many retailers. Children need to be kitted out with uniforms, shoes and stationery for the start of the new term, and those slightly older could also be being treated to new computers or laptops.

The rush to be first with back to school offers sees retailers such as Marks & Spencer, WHSmith, Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s launching cut-price deals on uniforms and school paraphernalia.

How much is the back to school market worth?

According to research firm Verdict, the school uniform and equipment market is worth £694m. Verdict says the market has been subject to rapid price deflation in the past six years as retailers have vied with each other to offer lower prices. The average price of a standard uniform has fallen by almost 21% since 2004.

Verdict consulting director Neil Saunders says: “It is important financially so retailers have reduced prices to get a share of the action. But it is also important psychologically - those that offer low prices on uniforms are seen as giving a helping hand to hard-pressed parents.”

How price competitive is the market?

Verdict says the grocers have driven down prices, and rapidly expanded their share of the market. In 2004, grocers had just under 13% of the market and today more than 26% of sales go through their tills.

Deflation has also taken its toll, with the total value of the market falling more than 19% from £861m in 2004. Price falls include a girls’ aged 7 to 8 uniform at £53 in 2004, down 50.9% to £26 in 2010, or a boys’ aged 12 to 13 uniform at £78 in 2004, down 64.1% to £28 in 2010.

Are there any new players?

Morrisons - which until now has not sold clothing - last week joined the school uniform fray with the launch of its first range.

Are there any trends in the back to school market?

Price is very much the key. Tesco this year took on M&S by freezing prices and claiming it had made improvements to its range. Independent testing found that mothers thought the quality matched M&S but with a lower price. M&S did not retaliate but pushed the quality of its ranges. M&S also launched a range of plus-sized school uniforms in an online trial.

Asda has been getting its customers to road test its uniforms and suggest improvements, such as adjustable waistbands. It is also pushing quality, and launched a 100-day returns policy.