Back-to-School Shopping Has Changed Forever

Nielsen, Retale studies show seasonal shift—and the dominance of digital

For decades, back-to-school shopping used to mean heading off to the mall (or, increasingly, Walmart) to fill the cart with the usual haul of spiral notebooks and backpacks. The digital age has changed that process, of course, but two just-released studies indicate just how dramatic that change really is.

Not only is back-to-school shopping happening earlier in the year, the sweeping adoption of mobile has rewritten the playbook of how mom and dad buy the goods—and what goods they buy.

A study released by Nielsen this morning shows that, as of this month, 18 percent of respondents had already started their shopping. This time last year, only 7 percent had. The creep forward likely owed itself in part to the fact that mass retailers like Office Depot, Target, and JC Penney launched their advertising campaigns earlier this year, starting in July.

“There’s a correlation between the ads that air and how consumers shop across categories but especially among the back-to-school product category,” said Nielsen’s global head of advertiser solutions, Randall Beard, in a statement.

Meanwhile, a new study released this week by location-based shopping platform Retale shows the surging influence of mobile in the shopping stampede. Surveying 1,000 parents with school-aged kids, the firm found that not only are 73 percent of them using mobile to buy back-to-school items, they’re using their smart phones for nearly every facet of the retail process. While 79 percent of parents are using mobile to buy items directly, a whopping 96 percent use them to compare prices. “Mobile has quickly become almost everybody’s versatile shopping buddy,” said Retale president Pat Dermody.

That’s good news for shoppers, but probably mixed news for traditional retailers. Retale’s survey found that while some shoppers like to use their mobile devices in stores and some outside of them, well over half—54 percent—do both. With purchasing decisions increasingly hinging on easy price comparisons being made on the fly, brick-and-mortar brands will need to keep up with those markdowns.

Finally, Nielsen’s data shows that back-to-school shoppers aren’t just shopping earlier and digitally, they’re shopping for different gear, too. While items like paper and pens are still popular, fewer of them are being sold—a drop from 77 to 63 percent, and 84 to 64 percent over last year, respectively. Perhaps not surprisingly, items like laptops and tablets are making up an increasing part of the mix, with 18 and 17 percent of respondents buying them this year.

These results are in line with other recent findings that show nearly all students in middle and high school now enjoy access to mobile devices. Who knows? They may even use them for schoolwork.

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