Back-to-School Shopping Starts Way Earlier Than You Think

back-to-school-shopping-data
If you’re thinking that you have more time to prepare for back-to-school shoppers, think again. New data — from multiple sources — shows that summer vacation has barely started before consumers start thinking about the next school year.

That’s right: People begin back-to-school shopping in July.

A new study by the National Retail Federation found that 27 percent of back-to-school shoppers (K–12) and almost 32 percent of back-to-college shoppers plan to start at least two months before the beginning of the school year.

And a separate study found that shopping begins as early as the week of July Fourth. MediaMath, a company that specializes in programmatic advertising, analyzed brands’ back-to-school advertising spending and conversions (people actually clicking those ads). They found that conversions start to climb steadily from about July 8 to August 5.

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Back-to-school (and college) is the second-biggest retail season after the winter holidays, with total spending projected to hit $83.6 billion this year (more than 10 percent more than last year), according to the NRF. So it’s important to take advantage of as much of that window as possible.

But if you haven’t already kicked off your back-to-school promos or marketing, don’t worry. You still have time.

MediaMath’s study also shows that the “high season” for K–12 shopping is between July 22 and August 25 (although these shoppers keep going all the way through Labor Day weekend). “High season” for college shoppers was a little earlier (early July to mid-August), likely a result of the fact that most colleges start earlier than their K–12 counterparts.

The NRF backs up these findings — most back-to-school (47 percent) and back-to-college (34 percent) shoppers plan to begin three weeks to a month before school starts.

So we know when they are shopping, but what are back-to-school shoppers buying, where are they buying, and how can you get in front of them?

What sells during back-to-school season?

As for what back-to-school and back-to-college shoppers spend money on, the results won’t shock you.

K–12 shoppers spend the most money on clothes, followed by electronics (although only 60 percent of respondents plan to buy them), shoes, and other school supplies, according to the NRF. And while spending is up from last year across all categories, shoes and school supplies are expected to see the biggest increase.

That differs slightly from college shoppers, who spend the most on electronics, followed by clothing, food, dorm/apartment furnishings, shoes, personal care items, school supplies, gift cards, and branded college gear.

What the two groups may have in common is how much the student influences purchase decisions. Of course college students are making their own decisions on what kind of clothes, school supplies, and furnishings they have (for the most part). But the NRF also found that 65 percent of K–12 shoppers said half or more of their purchases are a direct result of their children’s influence (up eight percent from last year).

That can have big consequences when you’re thinking about how you market your store or products and how you display things in your store or online. You can’t just appeal to the parents, you also have to present things in a way that connects with younger consumers.

Where are they buying?

People don’t do most of their back-to-school or back-to-college shopping in just one store. The NRF’s study found that consumers plan to shop at department stores, clothing stores, discount stores, and other specialty retailers.

But most of all, they plan to shop online. Forty-five percent of K–12 shoppers and 44 percent of college shoppers plan to buy online. So, if you only have brick-and-mortar locations, it might be time to start thinking about your online presence. (Remember, eight of ten Americans shop online, so this move benefits you all year long.)

Not only do shoppers want to buy online, but they are keen to take advantage of online perks. More specifically, the vast majority of them plan to use free shipping when shopping for back to school. Many also want an option to buy online and pick up in the store, which speaks to the importance of providing omnichannel perks for your customers.

How do I reach these shoppers?

How you reach back-to-school and college shoppers largely depends on what type of retailer you are, your location, and your budget.

If you’ve done a good job of building out your customer lists, email marketing is an easy way to reach people who already know your brand and like to shop with you. Social media is a straightforward way to reach new, but very targeted, prospective customers. A mix of tactics that target both current and new customers is ideal.

If you have more money to spend, you might think about paid digital advertising, both on social media and other digital platforms. MediaMath’s analysis shows that site traffic from mobile devices is particularly high from July 10 through August 28 (higher than before the summer starts), so it would likely pay to focus your time and dollars on mobile units.

Want some other ideas about how to capitalize on all this spending? Check out our ideas for back-to-school marketing and promotions.

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