Back to school is big business, especially the college market. Significant time is spent preparing to make college purchases, which makes omnichannel important for checking on prices, availability, coupons and delivery.

I am thrilled to be launching a new column for Digital Commerce 360. It has always been a dream of mine as president of the e-tailing group to be part of a media company and even better that it’s in my hometown of Chicago. We agreed that the time seemed right to create a column and co-branded location that focused on the voice of the shopper. This recurring column will bring a new dimension to Digital Commerce 360’s e-commerce coverage with a focus on the end consumer.


Lauren Freedman, president, the e-tailing group

Throughout the year, we will be conducting research to gauge the current shopper mindset and shoppers’ projected behavior from peak holiday shopping days to everyday buying. We will be looking in-depth at the customer experience assessing what tactics resonate. At the e-tailing group, we have always put the customer first as we recommend strategies, critique new business models and explore both the merchandising and the customer service propositions retailers put forth.

My mission is simple, as I intend to keep it real and call it how it is. I hope my down-to-earth nature and real shopper mentality inspires retailers to see new perspectives and impacts of the experiences they put forth. Enjoy this inaugural column and please make it part of your digital day.

Back to School—The Efficient Way

According to the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights and Analytics, total spending for back to school will reach $82.8 billion. On average, college and graduate students will spend $942.17 each for a total of $55.3 billion. Back to school is big business, and it is the college market that is the focus of this article.


Significant time is spent preparing to make college purchases, which makes omnichannel important for checking on prices, availability, coupons and delivery. As part of the Internet Retailer/e-tailing group research series conducted by BizRate Insights, we asked 1,105 online shoppers about the behaviors they planned to do more of during the next six months. Omnichannel plays a bigger role in shopping every year and, at this time of year, the prospect of buy online, pickup in store services have great appeal for parents whose kids are heading off to college. Sending kids off to college is a big step for families and one that is fraught with stress.

I recently sent my daughter to a college program in New York and took advantage of Target Corp.’s College Order Pickup program while at the same time looking at Bed, Bath & Beyond Inc. The attraction for me included seeing what items were targeted for dorm living, the ability to build a checklist that could be shared and, of course, I was happy to save a little money along the way.

Our survey results confirm that 2 out of 3 respondents will be checking online for product availability. This will become particularly important as students arrive at school, survey their surroundings and realize they need a few more items to finish outfitting their rooms. Not all big box stores are conveniently located, so ensuring that these visits are successful is critical.

We would expect that mobile will play an important role, particularly when families are in transit and in need of last-minute items. 1 in 3 expect to place more orders online and mobile will facilitate that activity. Students typically need it now and that means they will be looking for same-day delivery, and 1 in 4 shoppers surveyed will be placing more orders taking advantage of the convenience this affords.

Consumer interest has translated into retail execution as this chart below indicates. To discuss back to school experiences, I selected 10 companies where brisk business is likely to take place. Every company offers buyers product-locator capabilities, buy online/pickup in store options and the ability to create a shopping list. Same-day delivery from a store and live chat are extended for 7 of the 10 companies or 70% of the retailers surveyed.


Omnichannel Best Practices

Over the years, retailers have advanced digital back-to-school buying. Both Target and Bed Bath & Beyond stand out as leaders for their merchandising as well as the destinations they display. Inc. is a force to be reckoned with in every category and was an interesting amalgam of shopping experience. Given their personalization prowess, they launched Off to College Alexa deals and featured small merchandising touts that targeted the college audience, including deals and back-to-school supplies amidst the rest of their broad homepage assortment.

My experiences continually changed as I returned multiple times to the site. I was surprised not to be able to access an Off to College link via their Departments navigation, which seemed like a missed opportunity. Eventually, I typed in “Off to College” into the search box and was taken to a more robust merchandising location, which could have been easily missed by a less vigilant shopper. The good news is that upon arrival they encouraged me to start the year off right, segmenting the shopping with dorm essentials, textbooks and PCs, tablets and accessories.


Amazon’s 2-day shipping for Prime Students was front and center. The most interesting merchandising elements I encountered were peer picks and live streaming of key items via Amazon Back to School Live, though I had trouble locating this on subsequent visits. Innovation is always in fashion at Amazon as teens could be given their own login with the ability to select purchases which would then be set up for parental approval, helping to keep budgets on track. One friend shared that she ordered everything from Amazon, just as many customers do. She felt that its prices were better than the discounts being showcased on other big box sites. Buyer beware is encouraged as often times retailers have exclusive products so comparison shopping is recommended.

Bed Bath & Beyond has a built-in dashboard for shoppers to conveniently make the right choices from a single location. Shoppers can find all of their checklists, school information sheets that highlight supply needs along with a link to the closest campus store. Top category links facilitate adding more items to one’s list during the many likely visits to this location. Chat is accessible for in-the-moment problem solving, dos and don’ts for college buying and did I mention the 20% off discount? Scrolling navigation covers critical categories with an option to schedule an appointment with a college specialist at a physical store of your choosing—a differentiator from other retailers. Services are strongly branded starting with “pack and hold,” which allows you to place your order for pickup at a store near campus, while “shop now, ship later” aggregates your selections and ships them to an address of choice such as a dorm room. Either way, both allow parents and students to get organized and facilitate sharing with their loved ones.


Target has advanced its cause with strong branding and an edited selection including a powerful private label assortment. Since Target did not have a store in close proximity to my daughter’s New York school, it was not a good option for me. I did however want to take advantage of the 15% discount and edited product assortment before I left home, so I made a handful of purchases, picked them up at a local Chicago store and packed them in her carry-on luggage. My hometown store visit was lackluster as the associates seemed unaware of the program and had difficulty finding my order but made up for it with a good attitude.

Best Buy Co. Inc. uses navigation to expose its omnichannel services. Its customer-centric nature from logistics to reinforcing its price-match guarantee, along with access to help, make it convenient and compelling for customers to convert.


Best Buy zeroes in on students’ technology needs in its Student Hub. Interactive profiling tools help guide shoppers to the right computer choice. Robust content suggestions from must-have technology for the dorm room to essentials for living the best college life are presented. Its deal mentality is duly noted with coupons showcasing exclusive deals.

Retailers have geared up to ensure back-to-school shopping is efficient. The combination of comprehensive shopping destinations replete with robust assortments means shoppers are sure to find what they need. The content serves as a guide to making the right choices but it is the omnichannel solutions, from locating products to convenient pickup, that will save shoppers time during these harried days.