6 Back to School Retail Trends

Back-to-school season is undeniably one of the largest retail events of the year. The annual summer rush for notebooks, pens, and lunch boxes, not to mention clothing, shoes, and electronics, typically spans July through September and is a boon for everyone from department stores to discount retailers.

Data from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and our own experience reveals several trends that are driving what shoppers buy and where they’ll ultimately spend an estimated $80.7 billion on school supplies in 2019. Here are six of the biggest trends and the opportunities they offer retailers hoping to capitalize on the annual school spending spree.

1. “Back-to-college” shoppers outspend “back-to-school” shoppers.

Families with kids from elementary school through high school planned to spend an average of $696.70 on school supplies this year, while households with college students expected to spend nearly $300 more — an average of $976.78.

That’s due in part to different needs. In addition to the school supplies, clothes, accessories, and electronics that are part of back-to-school shopping, back-to-college shopping also includes personal care items, food, college brand gear, dorm and apartment furnishings, and gift cards to campus retailers.

While there’s more to buy, spending is also growing faster in the back-to-college space. Back-to-school spending rose 1.7 percent over last year, while back-to-college jumped 3.6 percent. That kind of growth has made back-to-college an area of increasing focus for retailers.

2. More back-to-school shoppers prefer brick and mortar, but not by much.

Among back-to-school shoppers, 53 percent planned to shop at department stores this year, and 50 percent planned to go to discount stores. Online shopping placed third, with 49 percent. Clothing stores aren’t far behind, at 45 percent, and just under a third (31 percent) will shop at office supply stores.

Back-to-college shoppers, however, have different preferences. Some 45 percent said they’d be doing most of their shopping online. They plan to do less shopping at department stores (39 percent) and discount stores (36 percent) than back-to-school shoppers. Just under a third said they would shop at their college bookstore, while just 29 percent said they would shop at office supply stores.

3. In-store pickups make back-to-college shopping more convenient.

Retailers are searching for ways to make the back-to-school and back-to-college shopping experiences easier, quicker, and more inviting for customers. One way they’re doing that is through buy online pick up in-store (BOPIS).

The ability to order school supplies online and then pick them up at a certain physical location is a big convenience for college students who might be traveling several states away from home. They can order exactly what they want and know it will be waiting for them near their new residence instead of risking that a store is out of stock of the particular item or style they prefer.

Being able to pick up supplies in the same town as their college means they don’t have to drag a car full of dorm or apartment essentials across the country. An added advantage for retailers is that once students are in the store to pick up their supplies, they might also buy other items they forgot to order online.

4. Deals matter.

Back-to-school shopping is something every family with school-age children has to do, and families are often working from lists of supplies provided by teachers. Because all those essential items can add up, shoppers are always looking for value.

That’s one reason why discount stores figure so prominently as a go-to source for back-to-school shopping. It’s also why 51 percent of back-to-school purchases, on average, were driven by special sales and deals. Three in 10 shoppers say coupons and in-store deals will draw them to one retailer over another.

5. Shoppers spend the least on actual school supplies.

Back-to-school shoppers plan to spend an average of $239.82 on clothing and accessories this year. Electronics purchases aren’t far behind at an average of $203.44, followed by shoes at $135.96, and just $117.49 dedicated to school supplies.

College shoppers have similar spending patterns. Electronics were anticipated to be the biggest cost, with an average spend of $234.69. Spending on clothing and accessories is expected to average $148.54, while dorm and apartment furnishings could total up to $120.19. Even food items, at an average spend of $98.72, are higher than school supplies, which also come in at less than $100.

6. Retailers draw in shoppers with events.

Retailers and shopping centers looking for creative ways to get back-to-school shoppers in the store are exploring events and school-sponsored fundraisers to draw in families.

Some set up a dedicated area in the parking lot for the local high school to have a car wash during back-to-school weekends where the band or another school group is also raising money. Other stores might offer to donate a portion of total sales to classrooms or school groups as a shopping incentive.

Other fundraisers, like Penn State’s Thon, which offers support to patients and raises money to fight childhood cancer, can attract people from the community at large who then might stay at the center to do their shopping.

Back-to-school 2019

With competition for back-to-school shoppers increasing as shoppers’ lists include a greater variety and quantity of school and college supplies, retailers that follow the trends will be best positioned to take advantage of one of the biggest annual shopping events of the year.

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