Back-to-College: Hooking the Early Birds

Retailers that launch back-to-college programs early will reap rewards with shoppers spending less as summer rolls on
April 13, 2017Maureen Azzato

CollegecampusBy Maureen Azzato

If you think online is where most back-to-college purchases will be made this summer, think again.

While the influence of e-commerce is pervasive among students, most back-to-college purchases will be made in physical stores, according to research from Deloitte LLP.

Most students, however, will purchase at least one-third of their back-to-college items online, but those purchases are most likely to be apparel and electronics, not home furnishings, according to a 2016 study by Branding Brand. Before drilling deeper into category purchase behavior and this year’s trends, its important to note that 86 percent will do all of their shopping from no more than six retailers, with 51 percent saying they will only buy from one to three retailers, according to Branding Brand, which noted that the top three retailers for online purchases are Amazon (74 percent), Target (51 percent) and Walmart (42 percent).

While Wayfair may not be among the top online retailers overall for back-to-school purchases, it is a top player when it comes to home furnishings. To make sure it remains top of mind among parents and students this summer, Wayfair plans to run a dorm and first-apartment promotion, according to Alex Bowman, lead trend forecaster for Wayfair.

“The biggest trend we’re seeing right now is that students have imaginative ideas for their dorms—suddenly there’s so much fantastic design inspiration out there, which allows students to really hone in on the styles that speak to them. Wayfair’s theme this year is ‘Black, White and Brights,’ so we’re providing a base layer of eye-catching [black and white] prints that can be added to. We’ve seen black and white all over the fashion and art world, and now we’re seeing them make their way to contemporary furniture and décor in a big way.”

Savvy students realize they can make pretty dramatic room décor statements with the right type of lighting, a category growing in importance for back-to-college merchandising and marketing. “A desk lamp just won’t cut it anymore,” Bowman said. “Students are loving light-up marquee letters to personalize their room, string lights, and cool LED floor lamps.” Bowman noted that Wayfair is also introducing a neon-phrase lighting collection for the back-to-college season, delving more deeply into the personalization, bright color and fashion lighting trends. Five years ago, parents were the ones who did most of the back-to-college shopping, but that has evolved, Bowman said, which recent sales data and research bears out.

“Dorm shopping allows young adults to express their personality without consequences. More importantly, dorm rooms or apartments act as a home away from home, so it’s important that students feel comfortable in their space,” Bowman said. “Functionality is also crucial; this should be a space where students can kick back with friends, study, or just unwind in their free time.”

In a 2016 Deloitte survey, parents said they planned to spend $1,345 on back-to-college merchandise, $263 more than the students expected to spend. And while 57 percent of students plan to contribute more than half of the back-to-college budget, only 16 percent of parents expect their kids to contribute that much.

By category, parents expect to spend $584 (43 percent of the total budget) on household appliances and supplies, and dorm furniture and supplies, while students expect to spend about $100 less on those categories.

In-Store Versus Online

Retailers with multiple channels of distribution are in the best position to ring up the largest share of back-to-college sales, and promotions should speak to both parents and students whether in store or online. With the rise of digital, parents and students are more likely to thoroughly research their purchases online even if they ultimately purchase the items in store, so it behooves retailers to ensure their pricing is consistent across their channels and competitive with other retailers. Options such as buy online and pick-up in store and buy online and return in store are also important to back-to-college shoppers.

Parents and students also begin shopping earlier in the summer and at different points throughout the summer to take advantage of the most deals, according to Deloitte’s research. Early shoppers also spend the most. While July and August are the biggest shopping months, those that shop before July spend the most ($349), although they only represent 6 percent of total back-to-school shoppers. As the summer proceeds, spending declines, which could be a combination of more merchandise being sold on promotion and shoppers being more judicious about the amount they spend. For example, shoppers in late July spend $309, while those in late August spend $270. Last minute shoppers in September spend even less, $259, according to Deloitte.

Not surprisingly, freshman spend more money and seniors the least as they head back to school ($1,352 versus $845). Male students on average spend more, especially on tech products such as computers, hardware and electronic gadgets, but when it comes to dorm furniture and household appliances male and female students are neck in neck, spending $481 and $472, respectively.

And, of course, social platforms strongly influence students in what they buy. In fact, 71 percent of students told Deloitte that social media is the way they find out about promotions.

Maureen AzzatoMaureen Azzato | Publisher & Editorial Director

 Maureen Azzato is responsible for all editorial and content management, strategic planning, sales and brand marketing for HFN. Azzato is a 25-year media veteran who has been involved in business-to-business publishing, brand development and marketing communications for her entire career.


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