For those that took advantage of the online channel, back-to-school buyers were diversified in their choice of the online channel and the varying amounts of their purchases online.

It’s that time of year again and, for me it’s somewhat bittersweet as my daughter enters her senior year of high school. I have watched my buying behavior shift from purchasing everything on the teacher’s list with an emphasis on supplies and, of course, new outfits. I remember following the early lists explicitly yet now I veer towards what my daughter wants —just like 30% of shoppers surveyed. Now, the spending is often on larger-ticket items as the road to college is looming. It’s too early to see the final numbers but the prognosis for back to school was $52.96 billion, according to Deloitte.

In August, during the height of back-to-school shopping, Digital Commerce 360 in conjunction Bizrate Insights, surveyed 3,324 online shoppers. Back-to-school buyers revealed that one in four completed a purchase during this time frame. It is these 734 buyers that our research will leverage for insights as we seek to understand this behavior and the rationale behind it. The attention was squarely on K-12 students, which will have some impact on spending dollars, categories purchased and models used.

Back-to-school buyers are fragmented, purchasing both online and offline. Plus, not all buyers have moved their back-to-school purchases online as 26% of back-to-school buyers made no purchases online at all. I would have to conclude from a sentimental perspective that there is still a pull towards the store fueled by lists in hand and a desire to truly share the experience with one’s children. Now these lists have moved online, making it a much more efficient route for parents. This dynamic may ultimately shift buyer behavior more than other factors, as it is at the crux of school supply purchasing.

For those that took advantage of the online channel, back-to-school buyers were diversified in their choice of the online channel and the varying amounts of their purchases online. The facts regarding back-to-school buyers stacks up as follows:

  • 27% made at least half of their purchases online
  • 43% made at least ¼ of their purchases online
  • 31% made less than ¼ of their purchases online

School supplies and clothing/accessories dominate back-to-school buying, with seven in 10 purchasing in these categories. Size-based products see greater frequency of purchase due to growth spurts at the beginning of the school year and throughout for many families. More than half of back-to-school shoppers purchased shoes as the ease of buying (and returning) these categories can’t be beat. For me, it means always checking my daughter’s volleyball shoes in July to see if they still fit and looking at socks that she may have outgrown. She indicated she wanted a new style so, of course, ‘yes’ was the operative answer.


Personal care and food items were bought by one in five back-to-school buyers. This was higher than I expected, but potentially a factor of general replenishment when making store visits. I expect this may be more of a week-to-week purchase rather than a stock-up situation for many parents before school starts. Electronics are also important, but their longevity may not make them an annual priority as we are always happy to get a few more years out of that MacBook from 8th grade.

One area we were particularly interested in analyzing was preconfigured kits of school supplies. These include your standard glue sticks, post-its and pencils and serve as a starting point for many parents. We also found these lists online as part of Target, Office Depot and Staples, and they appear to be fueled by a third-party site. Onsite directions are clear, and you can quickly find your school by state and zip code. It’s the equivalent of the box that used to be ordered offline and has been proven to be a favorite among friends of mine and parents across the country. Teachers provide the list and parents provide the credit card, certainly something we have become accustomed to over the years. The convenience factor is high, and shoppers simply add all items via a one-click addition to the cart. Ironically, they looked a little different for our neighborhood school when completing a 4th grade request across sites, but perhaps there have been teacher updates since the initial upload. Out-of stocks were identified as it’s now past the start of school. On a positive note, it looks like teachers may benefit based on purchases made, which is a nice incentive to encourage participation and certainly much appreciated among the teacher segment.

The Big 3 received the lion’s share of back-to-school purchasing. One can quickly see from the numbers that Amazon and their store-based counterparts are a force to be reckoned with, making it difficult to compete. Like all things ecommerce, Amazon led the way as 55% of back-to-school shoppers made purchases on their site. Walmart and Target followed close behind running neck and neck for back-to-school buying favorites. Department stores, office supply, general merchants and specialty stores receive smaller shares of the overall business but remain a factor. From there, niche specialty retailers also see single-digit purchasing by back-to-school shoppers though it pales in comparison. Interestingly, back-to-school shoppers surveyed cited 90 distinct retailers that reaped the spoils of their shopping. Those receiving at least three mentions included American Eagle, Christian Book, Famous Footwear, Foot Locker, Gap, J.C. Penney, Lands’ End, Meijer, Nike, Old Navy, Sam’s Club and TJ Maxx.


A range of different influences played a role during the back-to-school shopping season. Reviews are part and parcel to online shopping, and one in three back-to-school shoppers read product reviews as part of their research. Kids are opinionated as we all know with parents suggesting that children influenced purchases for 30% of these shoppers. Mobile is integral to back-to-school shopping as it is throughout the year, and it manifested itself in that 28% researched and purchased on mobile phones and 17% used an app. Back-to-school shoppers seek omnichannel solutions as well with one in four reporting that they placed a buy online pick up in store order, and 7% placed an order online for pickup at college. It should be noted that is likely much higher across the board as our college parent segment was somewhat small. On the altruistic front, 17% donated school supplies.

Promotions rule back to school and all other holidays, so shoppers expect free shipping will be available. Omnichannel store pickup ensures this is a reality for those who embrace this option. Free shipping was prevalent in back-to-school shopping with seven in 10 taking advantage of this market favorite. Email still plays an important role in back-to-school shopping and across the board where three in four used an email promotion as part of back-to-school buying. Other discounts played a small role in back-to-school shopping but weren’t critical parts of this seasonal behavior. An example includes in-store student discounts, which were a part of 16% of shopping experiences. Additionally, 12-13% of back-to-school shoppers signed up to get a discount on site, via a mobile app or as a result of direct mail.


Back-to-school buying is big business in all channels. Shoppers continue to gravitate to the web to get the job done. Their tendency is to purchase on Amazon, Walmart and Target, making it challenging but still realistic for others to capture market share. School supplies, clothing and accessories, along with shoes, dominate spending. It also finds shoppers took an interest in reviews, embraced expectations for mobile and knew that omnichannel solutions are always welcome. Teacher-supplied lists serve as the crux of shopping and can be the conduit to optimizing online shopping. Promotions, particularly free shipping, will always be in favor. Putting this knowledge in play throughout the school year should result in a good report card, sure to please online shoppers.