Not knowing exactly what was needed or where to buy it were the biggest challenges we faced. There were several key questions that came to mind as we began this back-to-school journey, says Lauren Freedman, senior consumer insights analyst for Digital Commerce 360.

Back-to-school 2020 has taken on a new meaning. As a mother of a daughter headed to college, we have lived the uncertainty that the pandemic has thrust upon all of us. When I received word that my daughter would be going back in-person, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. Despite the challenges and uncertainties that come with this option, it still feels like she is headed in the right direction.

Deloitte’s 2020 back-to-school survey of 1,025 college-age parents sheds light on spending projections and behavioral shifts that underlie this all-important shopping season. Back-to-school college shoppers are projected to spend $25.4 billion or approximately $1345 per student. Online expects to see gains as parents of this age group will spend $10.4 billion up from $8.1 billion in 2019. In-store spending is expected to decline but remains integral to the process with 43% of total spending taking place in store. Buy online pick up in store should play a critical role, seeing heightened frequency as shoppers choose contactless options.

 Now the fun begins—The Shopping

Not knowing exactly what we needed or where to buy it were the biggest challenges we faced. While her school had a list, it seemed far from complete. There were several key questions that came to mind as we began this back-to-school journey:

  1. What is our budget?
  2. Should we deliver our purchases to our house, the dorm or a combination?
  3. What should be on our shopping list?
  4. Which items do we want to purchase in-store and what is better suited for online shopping?

The Questions

  1. What is our budget? Will we only buy on promotion or are we willing to pay full price?

It’s hard for me to fathom that parents can get away spending just $1,345, which is what the Deloitte survey estimated. We couldn’t even come close when an Apple product is involved. We intend to be savvy shoppers, seeking out promotions where we can and taking advantage of college programs and registries along the way. We will almost always demand free shipping, making exceptions only where the offer covers the shipping cost. If an item is exceptional, we will pay full price, justifying it as a 4-year investment.

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  1. Should we deliver our purchases to our house, the dorm or a combination?

As we will be driving to New York, I thought it would be advantageous to gather everything in the garage and sort with some things we already had accumulated when she participated in a pre-college program. We may not get everything and may do a last-minute pickup at the Target close to campus.

  1. What should be on our shopping list?

I have never believed in one-stop shopping and back-to-college shopping proved to be no different. Like everything in life, it starts with a list. That includes convincing your kid to do their homework as well and to ensure they are part of the process. There was a lot to learn as my own trip to college looked much different. Questions included, “Does the bed require a topper or is a mattress pad sufficient?” or “How many space-saving items do we need for the closets we’ve never seen?” I could clearly see that our list would be divided into technology, bedding, bath, organization and space-saver storage. Art supplies would factor in later as she learned more about class requirements.

  1. Which items do we want to purchase in-store and what is better suited for online shopping?

We did a hybrid model, purchasing as much online as possible. We visited the stores for ideas and picked up things we liked along the way. Online was more efficient, but the store visits were more fun.

Where to Shop: Stores vs. Amazon

Target was our starting point and it didn’t disappoint. My daughter and I built the registry, and she scanned additional items when visiting the store. Her list was comprised of bedding, towels and a lot of basics. Not a week went by when I didn’t visit the store. COVID-19 was not going to get in the way of our college shopping. We always managed to sneak in another item when we went back in the store.

The next stage included The Container Store. The merchandising is second to none, and one can’t help but want everything it features. Its onsite content is particularly strong and served as a guide to ensuring you didn’t forget anything. The biggest challenge is being sure you don’t buy what you don’t need as it inspires the shopper to build a perfectly organized dorm. We leveraged the retailer’s POP rewards program and got 30% off of a single item as we need to save where we can. When we returned to the website in mid-July, many categories were on promotion, and it let us know that college merchandise would be 20% off over a 30-day time frame.

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We also went to Ikea, as I heard their blue bags were ideal for packing the car. Any sane person might wonder why we drove an hour just for the bags. I did too once we had made the trip. The store was not a great fit for us. We picked up some miscellaneous items but could have skipped the visit altogether. This became even more apparent when my daughter found the bags on Amazon.com.

Bed Bath & Beyond, long a staple of college shopping visits, was somewhat disappointing as well. It had a few interesting items and of course I wanted to use our 20%-off coupons, but it didn’t prove to be enough to make a return trip. When we did, its promised pickup time (2 business hours) was not met and tracking the packages became an annoyance. Knowing that my closest Bed Bath & Beyond limited the store to 144 visitors, we took advantage of the curbside pickup. The app didn’t make me feel totally confident, so I called to follow up and the associate seemed scattered despite no cars in the lot at 9 a.m.

Additionally, as I signed up for its college program, which included a summer-long discount, it required uploading the class schedule. I guess the retailer wasn’t aware of how late many colleges are in solidifying these issues, let alone deciding if students will be on campus.

Amazon

Amazon had a role to play, beginning with the gift cards my daughter received. The ecommerce giant had a college section on its site, and I did initially add items to a list, some of which we ultimately purchased. She had accumulated almost $300 and wanted to choose wisely. It wasn’t the specialty items but rather commodity purchases like a Western Digital Passport and a Conair clothes steamer that was on several recommended lists that caught her attention.

Additionally, as shared in our Digital Commerce 360/Bizrate Insights June Amazon survey, 31% of respondents go to Amazon for the depth of assortment but 29% for the ability to locate the hard-to-find items. The unique items were a makeup organizer and a specialized topper while other basics included a laptop cover and sleeve. Our ability to comparison shop most of these items was instrumental in our buying on Amazon. A 5-cup Brita is another example where she shopped around and either encountered out-of-stocks or a higher price, so Amazon got the nod. 

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Abt vs. Apple

The computer was actually the first purchase and the most expensive, considering my daughter’s degree will be in fashion design. She required a MacBook Pro. As Chicago-based stores had only recently reopened and pent up demand was seen, lines were long near our house and in-store visitors limited due to social distancing.

She wanted to take advantage of the generous trade-in offer and college promotion, which included 20% off of Apple Care. Apple offered an upgrade on its Air Pods, which was also appealing to her.

In the interest of getting this critical item off the list, I chose to go to Abt. It was the perfect specialty store, best suited to handle her needs. The fact that we pre-determined our needs with a salesperson in advance of the call made for an even more efficient experience and our quote was ready upon arrival. Its service was second to none and Abt matched Apple promotions and more. The biggest benefit was that it transferred her remaining photographs, for which she was having trouble, within less than an hour, as we completed our purchase and toured the store. It was an A+ experience. Being done with that big purchase felt good, especially knowing her list was quite long.

 The clothes were critical

Purchasing for back-to-school involved both in-store experiences and taking advantage of online promotions. The promotions were abundant and cited by 36% of apparel shoppers who go online to save money, according to Digital Commerce 360/Bizrate Insights 2020 apparel survey of 1,000 online shoppers. From the promotion’s point of view, Aerie and Urban Outfitters were strong candidates. We did our part and both subsequently included online shopping visits to these stores for returns prompting additional shopping.

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Some stores require tactile and try-on more than others and that was certainly the case at Aritzia. Its lines were 6 feet deep and the “doctor” at the door said its capacity was for 20 and that it was understaffed. Why would this be the case? Even at the checkout counter, the associate said she would go online to place her orders. Retailers should step up their game in this regard. Knowing the shortfalls from the pandemic, there was no excuse.

We had already tried to visit lululemon in two locations, and the wait times were long, proving to be a turnoff even for the most seasoned shopper. I wondered if shoppers would wait in lines to shop, especially given the range of weather seen across the country. I consider myself a tried-and-true shopper, yet I have found my patience runs thin. It was only knowing we had the gift card that meant we would give it one last try. Our last purchase meant only a 10-minute wait at a smaller lululemon store, and the product was worth it as always.

The final step would be coordination among roommates once move-in dates were confirmed. I’m sure there will be last-minute items, returns and regrets. Regardless of this, we will get on the road and complete the first stop on the journey to college.

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