Photograph by Andrew Burton—Getty Images
By John Kell
September 7, 2014

Retailers like Macy’s, Gap, and Abercrombie & Fitch predictably trumpet their Labor Day discounts. But who exactly listens?

Surprisingly, it’s not always suburban parents or struggling students preparing for back-to-school. Turns out the most responsive shopper is Midwestern women over the age of 65 – or, in short, the Midwestern grandma.

The finding comes from a recent survey by the National Retail Federation, which asked respondents how many of the back-to-school purchases they made were influenced by coupons or sales. More than one-fifth of women said all their purchases were tied to discounts while only 8.7% of men gave a similar answer.

The stakes are high for retailers to cash in on back-to-school shoppers. Spending is expected to total more than $26 billion according to the industry trade group National Retail Federation, or more than $660 per household with school-aged kids.

Retailers make up to 15% of their annual profits during back-to-school, which ran this year from July 20 to September 13. Only the Christmas holiday season brings in more profits.

Back-to-school ads typically target children, to influence to buy particular jeans, sneakers and school supplies while shopping with their parents. But the recent financial crisis and uneven economic recovery has put a strain on many parents – and, some say, led to grandparents footing more of the back-to-school bill.

“I can understand why grandparents are stepping up to the plate and helping their kids more,” said Ron Friedman, a consumer products consultant for accounting and advisory firm Marcum LLP. “It is probably a function of the economy and the recession, grandparents’ kids need the help.”

The survey, which was based on over 6,000 respondents with kids at home, also found that nearly a third of those over 65 said all of their purchases during the back-to-school season had been motivated by deals. Although the report did not say, older people who have children or grand children at home may be lower-income and therefore pay careful attention to sales out of necessity.

The Midwest ranked the highest among the four regions for use of discounts during the back-to school period.

Deals reportedly were a main reason retailers like Costco Wholesale (COST) and L Brands (LB) reported stronger-than-expected sales in August on Thursday. But deals also cut into profits and do not necessarily signal that a retailer is doing well.

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