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Meet the New Back-to-School Shoppers – How Multi-channel Retailers Greet Them in Style

Penelope Stockinger

By Penelope Stockinger

On August 23, 2018

Forget summer reading lists and long days at the beach, it seems that the latest summer pastime is back-to-school shopping!

And the spending is … staggering

According to Deloitte, the back-to-school (B2S) season is the second-biggest shopping season of the year after the holiday season, with nearly 30 million households across the United States planning to spend a total of $27.6 billion for K-12 back-to-school supplies alone.  That is an estimated $510 per household.  When college spending is added to that sum – an estimated $55.3 billion – the total spending for K-12 and college students combined is projected to reach $82.9 billion for 2018.

The shopping window begins as early as July – with events such as Amazon Prime Day and retailers’ “Black Friday in July” now kicking off the back-to-school shopping season.  This is a growing testament to the clout of Amazon, whose Prime Day has had the effect of shifting shoppers’ purchase behavior up by nearly a month.  It is now estimated that some 62% of shoppers will begin looking for bargains before August. From there, the shopping continues with peaks and valleys that vary based on shopper persona and category. It’s not, however, a shopping frenzy, as the majority of back-to-school shoppers research and buy items throughout the summer, beginning their search in July. What’s more, a third of shoppers say they’re not done buying until after the school year begins. The next big bump can come during the Labor Day sales and when some products show up on teachers’ supply lists.

With parents shelling out anywhere from $500 to $900 or even more (depending on which forecast we are reading) for products ranging from electronics to pencil packs, the biggest concern they have is maximizing their budgets. Have you seen the latest price tag for those fancy calculators required by most math classes? Everyone is searching for deals, especially for the larger ticket items like electronics.

What are they buying?

According to a survey from the National Retail Federation (NRF), back-to-school shoppers plan to spend the most on clothing – $236.90 per household. In addition to apparel, back-to-school shoppers also plan to spend:

  • $187.10 on electronics such as computers, calculators or phones (with a decrease this year in seasonality for these items as they have become an everyday part of household life and are not necessarily a back-to-school-only purchase)
  • $138.66 on shoes
  • $122.13 on school supplies: notebooks, pencils, backpacks, and lunchboxes

For the college-bound set, parents will be spending the most on electronics, at $343 per household, during the back-to-school rush, with clothing and dormitory/apartment furnishings coming in second.  A dip was reported in personal care, food and gift card spending – so we can assume these necessities will be purchased throughout the year.

For savvy retailers, these college-bound students are not just going “back-to-school” but “back-to-campus” which carries over into a whole new category of shopper – whether students are headed to the dorms or their first apartment – this is a major life event and a new beginning.  One company,, views their season as beginning right after high-school graduation – and lasting through Labor Day. But the opportunity does not end there, embraces these seasonal purchases as the beginning of a long customer relationship.

Who does the shopping?  No surprise, it’s mostly moms 

With technology taking a larger piece of the pie for expected spend, dads are likely to want to weigh in on the purchase decisions when laptops, smartphones, and other electronics are needed. But technology is just one small part of the basket, and for the rest, moms are solidly in-charge, taking cues from 80% of their student-children.  One research report revealed that children will directly influence over $21 billion in back-to-school spending, with 80% having a moderate-to-high influence in clothing and accessory purchases.

And moms are mobile!  ”Mobile will be bigger than ever and very important for influencing the purchaser [this back-to-school season],” Jeanne McPhillips, vice president of merchandising at, told eMarketer. “Mobile is part of everything – you look at email on your phone and you look for information on your phone”.

AdWeek reported on a survey which discovered that two-thirds of moms use their mobile devices throughout their entire path-to-purchase. Before walking into stores, moms are pulling out smartphones to:

  • Compare products (60%)
  • Find product/brand recommendations (52%)
  • Decide where to buy (56%)
  • Get product ideas (55%)

Where are back-to-school shoppers buying?

Mass merchants remain the top location for back-to-school shopping, with 83% of shoppers noting they had planned to shop via this channel. While price-based retailers can expect a large percentage of shoppers, customers tend to spend more when they shop at traditional retailers like department stores, home electronics stores, and office supply stores.

Not surprisingly, online shopping for this season continues to increase in popularity. The NRF annual survey showed that 49% of back-to-school consumers planned to shop online for these purchases, increasing from 44% last year.

This year customers expect online and physical shopping experiences to be complementary. Fifty-six percent said they plan to research online before making in-store purchases, while 52% said they would purchase from online retailers who offer free shipping.

Superior product information drives online engagement

Could innovations in retail technology change our shopping behaviors in the future?  Maybe we’re ready to add mall-browsing in augmented reality or turn-styling Amazon Go to our list of shopping experiences. But perhaps retailers today should focus on how to improve the online purchasing process with amazing product information and personalization.  What drives an online product purchase, beyond a discount or the convenience of home delivery?  Maybe the answer lies in mastering product information.

For e-commerce merchandising, this can mean as many as six layers of product information and opportunities for personalized recommendations on a website.  Beginning with a home-page where reportedly 25% of shoppers consistently scroll up and down to establish an impression of a site’s product range.  Attribute rich products, especially those with multiple variations, can be displayed in captivating ways online.  But the experience with a product and the possibilities for personalization do not end there.  Opportunities for rich, multi-attribute product information can be architected into several site pages, from category pages, to search pages, 404 pages and of course shopping carts.

With their vast inventories, multi-channel retailers can ultimately differentiate themselves by augmenting their mile-high back-to-school shopping displays online through personalization and in doing so, turn the back-to-school experience into customer relationships that can last the whole year.