Google searches for the term “back to school” doubled in early July, a sign consumers are buying now for the upcoming school year. Ecommerce will play a big role during this big buying season as a survey shows 60% of consumers plan on using smartphones to shop for back to school and 42% plan on using desktops or laptops.

Jim Johnson, vice president, Global Account Management, Exponential

Jim Johnson, vice president, Global Account Management, Exponential

Unlike student’s alarm clocks, for retailers and marketers, back-to-school is no time to snooze. As Google Trends data reveals, interest in the search term “back to school” doubled in the period between July 1 and July 22, while Deloitte projects the majority of consumer spending, about $9.5 billion of a projected $27.8 billion, to occur during the first two weeks of August.

This begs the question: “How are consumers planning on spending all that money, and what can marketers do to connect with these audiences?”

Any friction on the path to purchase will likely end up in a lost sale.

What (and where) consumers buy for Back-to-School

The National Retail Federation’s annual Back-to-School survey has some potential insights. According to their findings, K-12 families will spend most of their back-to-school budget at department and discount stores or online. NRF projects most purchases will be on clothing and accessories, followed by electronics such as computers and smartphones, and supplies such as backpacks, pens, and pencils.

In terms of college, the NRF predicts that most shopping will occur online (85% of college shoppers plan to take advantage of free shipping), followed by department and discount stores, as well as college bookstores and office supply stores. Categories with the most expected average spend include electronics, clothing and accessories, dorm and apartment furnishings and food.


One commonality between both groups is that both are on the hunt for deals. Consumers researching back-to-school shopping are 87x more likely than the internet average to also be researching coupons and rebates. When it comes to brands, the top researched brands by consumers include Staples, Amazon, Apple, and Walmart.

Digital’s role in Back-to-School shopping

Having an understanding of the channels consumers choose to access back-to-school shopping content is key in forming a strong digital marketing strategy. Deloitte’s 2019 Back-to-School Shopping survey found that 60% of consumers plan on using smartphones for their shopping and 42% plan on using desktop or laptops. Users on mobile and desktop alike were most likely to use their devices to access a retailer’s website, while mobile users were more likely to use theirs to get pricing information, collect discounts, and obtain coupons or sale information.

How marketers can best connect with consumers

Understanding device usage can help to inform a cohesive consumer journey for customers and add value to their shopping experience. For example, mobile videos featuring product pricing with discount code overlays that click out to a retailer’s website helps to consolidate the information-seeking phase of the journey.

Allowing consumers to use their mobile device to build a shopping cart, while ensuring they can purchase later via laptop if they don’t have time or inclination to do so at the moment, aligns with their preferred usage and helps the retailer avoid cart abandonment issues. Click-and-collect functionality, where a consumer can buy online and pick up offline, has also become increasingly popular with younger consumers such as college students, who may want to buy at home and pick up at a location closer to campus.

As for emerging channels, 85% of consumers do not plan to use voice-assist, buy directly through social media posts or augmented/virtual reality for back-to-school shopping, an important stat to keep in mind when testing new channels this fall.

Customer-centric strategies such as these are critical during this condensed timeframe, as any friction on the path to purchase will likely end up in a lost sale. Utilizing an omnichannel approach to back to school marketing that incorporates a combination of mobile and desktop messaging focusing on product pricing and availability, deals and offers, and ease of purchase online or in-store (or both) is a clear path to success this school year.

Exponential is a digital advertising agency.