Back to School Versus Back to College: A Look at Consumer Shopping Habits

Marcy Chickering, Client Marketing Director, Valassis
Published Monday, Aug 13, 2018



Back to School Versus Back to College: A Look at Consumer Shopping Habits

Where did the years go?  It seems like yesterday that, list in hand, my daughter (adorned in pigtails and bows, of course) and I were at Target in the seasonal back-to-school section. That section was abuzz with activity. Young children pouring through lunch box choices, crayons, colored pencils and construction paper. Then, as the kids grew older, we found ourselves at Office Max, deciding on the right calculator and making sure we had enough one-subject notebooks in different colors for each class. 

Now, I'm shopping for a bed in a box so that my youngest, a college sophomore, can furnish his fraternity room this fall. Not until doing research for our sales team, did I realize that back to school is the second largest consumer spending season…second only to the winter holidays! That's mind blowing to me! According to the National Retail Federation, in 2017 Back to School/Back to College accounted for $83.6 billion – yes, that's billion – in spending.

Of course, expenditures for college are considerably more than back to school, with an average annual household spend of $688 for back to school and $970 for back to college. In order of highest amount spent are clothing and accessories, electronics, shoes, then school supplies.  Electronics take the first spot for back to college, followed by clothing and accessories, food items, dorm or apartment furnishings, shoes, personal care items, school supplies, gift or prepaid cards and finally, collegiate gear. So, if you millennial parents think it will soon get cheaper to raise your children, sorry to break the news to you, but it only gets more expensive.

When I moved my son back home from his freshman year at college, I literally started making a list in early May of what I'd need for him to make the move from dorm to fraternity. As it turns out, I'm not alone as families are shopping earlier than ever. The last three years prove this trend, as the back-to- school shopping season is starting sooner each year.

Another interesting tidbit, is that 76 percent of parents prefer to shop in-store, making an average of 16 trips to purchase back to school products. Parents shop seven retailers on average, with repeat visits to the same retailer being common, according to NPD.

Interestingly, the most popular day of the week for consumers to shop office supply stores is Monday. Consumer shopping at department/apparel and footwear stores spikes on Saturdays and big box stores see most traffic spikes during the weekend, per GroundTruth data. If you want to avoid the crowds, you might want to consider shopping at off-peak times. And, speaking of avoiding crowds, online retailers will attract back-to-school and college consumers by offering free shipping and pickup in store – the two most important reasons to shop a specific retailer, according to shoppers. 

So with back-to-school and college shopping in full swing and billions of dollars up for grabs, retailers should be incenting consumers to fill up those shopping carts before the first school bell rings.