Just like the entire year, online shopping captured consumers’ hearts and wallets once again as robust buying took place in many of the traditional categories. An array of stores benefited, but Amazon, Target and Walmart reaped more of the spoils.

Back-to-school has new meaning for me and many others. The in-person dynamic is particularly personal as, like many other parents, I took my daughter to in-person college for the first time. The anticipation and angst on the part of parents and students are palpable as we learn to live with fluctuating circumstances.

Our Digital Commerce 360/Bizrate Insights survey in late August 2021 began with 1,375 online buyers. Ultimately, 42% of initial survey respondents had made back-to-school purchases across the grade spectrum breaking out as follows: K-12 (31%) and College + (11%). The remaining either made no purchases, did not have children or they weren’t of school age.

Back-to-school shoppers are shifting their buying online with most shoppers making online purchases. Of this back-to-school buyer segment, 77% of parents made purchases online. The fact that 30% made more than half of their purchases online is even more impressive. The remaining percentages are as follows:

  • 15% made 26%-50% of their purchases online
  • 32% made 25% or less of their purchases online
  • 23% made none of their purchases online

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When asked about their year-over-year spending comparison, 37% said they bought more online this back-to-school season, 38% bought about the same and only 25% purchased less online.

Back-to-school shoppers made purchases in a myriad of categories. School supply purchasing was universal with 78% of online buyers making purchases in this category. Replenishing wardrobes was often on shopping lists with three in four spending on clothing. Of course, in-person school is likely to have played a role here, with students wanting to look their best. Personal care at 40% penetration also received significant attention along with food items at 28%. Technology purchasing is likely a factor of one’s pandemic buying behavior as only 14% indicated they bought computers/tablets while 13% noted purchases of electronic gadgets including wearable technology.

When asked to select the top three stores for completing back-to-school purchases, the big-three dominated back-to-school purchasing. The strength of Amazon and its store-based competitors (Walmart and Target) is formidable with penetration as follows:

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  • Amazon: 67%
  • Walmart: 55%
  • Target: 44%

As has been standard practice, school supplies were already on display at retail right after the Fourth of July at my local Target stores. And during a Labor Day visit, they remained in place for last-minute shoppers. It’s hard not to slip in a few purchases as you make general shopping trips to these stores.

Department stores, dollar stores, and specialty stores all played a role in back-to-school shopping and one’s location likely played a role in that selection. Shoppers often have their “preferred” store so good to see that 49 stores singled out a retailer who was not in our list as one of their top-3 stores for back-to-school.

Of course, it goes without saying that 58% of survey respondents said they were influenced by a child to purchase a particular item. Additionally, shoppers continue to accelerate their use of mobile devices. With 28% of respondents researching on mobile devices and 21% using retailer mobile apps for purchasing, it’s imperative that retailers have in place mobile-centric user experiences.

Inventory remains challenged, resulting in 26% encountering out-of-stocks while only 6% faced order cancellations. 6% were also wise to pre-order products and perhaps that number would have been higher with a different set of categories.

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Omnichannel had an important role to play in back-to-school with both BOPIS and curbside a factor. 20% indicated they placed a BOPIS order given the strong pull of stores while placing curbside orders was done by 17%. As the pandemic ebbs and flows, we would expect such patterns might change.

Information gathering centered around reading product reviews for 26% of those surveyed. 11% downloaded sanctioned school lists while a comparable number built shopping lists on websites. Just 4% researched online dorm lists and recommendations; although it was invaluable for my own experience. It was interesting to see that 9% still perused newspaper circulars, so they still appear to have a role to play.

 

If there ever was a year where parents would be willing to spend more, certainly 2021 would fit the bill.  Yet no back-to-school season would be complete without a discussion of promotions. This year’s survey found that 60% of purchases involved a promotion. Full-priced products still were a factor as technology and popular products likely commanded top dollar. I’m surprised it wasn’t higher given the bombardment of marketing messages I received. My premonition is that promotions may have been less prevalent among the big-three and, given their overall volume, the results would skew accordingly.

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Most back-to-school buyers (51%) looked for sites with free shipping. Both online and physical stores saw the following coupon redemption. As seen below, student discounts saw some traction, though their low numbers suggest to me that they are not always as visible as they could be.

Online In-Store
Coupon redemption 37% 29%
Used email promotions 32%
Used student discount 9% 10%
Direct mail or newspaper coupon 9%

 

Signing up with a website or registering for discounts is a quick way to save a few bucks, and retailers encourage shoppers to sign up as a customer acquisition vehicle. Here, 18% of respondents took advantage of being able to secure a future discount through sharing an email, mobile number, or both. However, just 8% secured a long-term discount for signing up/texting for future promotions. While this may have been limited to a handful of stores, it is an excellent retention strategy that others should consider.

Additionally, 9% signed up for Amazon Prime while purchasing. Driving shoppers to specific channels received some attention and was in line with mobile research and buying patterns noted above. 20% took a discount for mobile shopping while 16% received a discount for mobile app behavior.

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Online shopping growth may be harder to come by than it was during the peak of COVID-19 as most back-to-school shoppers (53%) will buy about the same online for the holidays. Fortunately, 33% of back-to-school buyers are ripe for more online holiday shopping.

Back-to-school is a buying season that brings fond memories to the minds of most shoppers and 2021 was no different. Just like the entire year, online shopping captured consumers’ hearts and wallets once again as robust buying took place in many of the traditional categories. An array of stores benefited but the big-three players, including Amazon, Target and Walmart, reaped more of the spoils. The influence of kids on buying remained strong. Along with this, shoppers leveraged mobile devices to get the job done shopping in-store but taking advantage of omnichannel options based on personal circumstances and convenience.

As the holidays are on the horizon, two things I will be watching for is how promotional the holidays will be and how challenging having the right inventory will be for the retailer. These two fundamentals of retail may have the most influence on the season’s success as shoppers continue to shift their dollars online. But mostly, I will be monitoring the pandemic, the variants and its ebbs and flows, hoping that this back-to-school season, students stay in school and begin to thrive once again.

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