Class is in session: 3 lessons for retailers this back-to-school season

VP, Industry and Consumer Insights

It might feel like summer just started, but for many parents and kids, the first day of school is just around the corner. While shopping for new clothes, notebooks and calculators may feel like a familiar ritual, the ways in which consumers stock up for back-to-school has evolved in some critical ways. NRF’s research team looked at data from our annual survey of back-to-school shoppers conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, as well as key foot traffic trends from location intelligence company Foursquare, and identified three lessons to help retailers get up to speed on the new back-to-school season.

Lesson 1: Consumers don’t “cram” for back-to-school shopping
A decade ago, most back-to-school shopping took place at the end of summer — parents waited until the last minute to stock up on supplies, clothes and electronics for the new school year. Nearly a third (32 percent) of consumers in 2007 did not even start shopping until a week or two before the start of classes. This gave parents a narrow window to fill their kids’ back-to-school needs while also making sure they found the best items and deals for their budgets. It’s not surprising, then, that consumers have tried to get ahead of the rush over the last 10 years: According to the latest NRF back-to-school survey, 27 percent of parents plan to start shopping a full two months before the start of school this year, compared with just 15 percent in 2007.


Younger parents have embraced the early shopping season. In 2007, just 13 percent of 18- to 24-year-old parents and 14 percent of 25- to 34-year-old parents started shopping two or more months before school; in 2017, 26 percent of 18- to 24-year-old parents and 34 percent of 25- to 34-year-old parents shopped early.

Many retailers have taken notice of this change in consumer behavior and moved up their back-to-school offerings: Target, Walmart and Amazon are among retailers that feature back-to-school advertisements and teachers’ classroom lists on their websites as early as June and July, and this year Office Depot rolled out seasonal marketing for the fall semester on June 25 — a date when most students are barely into summer vacation.

Lesson 2: Back-to-school lasts all summer long
Consumers might start thinking about back-to-school lists in June, but they stretch out their shopping all summer long. When NRF asked shoppers how much of their back-to-school shopping they had completed in early August last year, only 39 percent had finished more than half of their shopping and just 13 percent were fully done. Foot traffic patterns also point to consumers stretching their purchases throughout the season: Foursquare used 2016 data to analyze shopping patterns between Independence Day and Labor Day and found that store visits peak toward the latter half of the summer, during the last two weeks of July and into the first week of August. This pattern differs slightly depending on where consumers live.


“Foursquare’s foot traffic data reveals that parents in rural areas tend to start their back-to-school shopping earlier than urban parents, with visits to places including malls, big-box stores and office supply stores picking up in July and early August,” said Steven Rosenblatt, president of Foursquare. “Urban parents stagger shopping more evenly throughout late July and August but visit electronics stores last.” This means retailers should tailor promotion timing to ensure they’re capturing consumers when they plan to be in the store.

Lesson 3: The lines between digital and physical retail continue to blur
In 2017, 43 percent of consumers planned to use their smartphones to research products or compare prices while back-to-school shopping, compared with 33 percent just five years ago. For those early-bird Millennial parents, that number is closer to 60 percent.

Despite the growing role of mobile, only one in four consumers plans to use their phone to complete a purchase. Consumers may rely on their devices to find the best price on that trending superhero backpack or look up information on different laptop models, but once they’ve figured out what they want, they’re often heading into stores to make their purchase. In a flash poll NRF conducted among back-to-school parents, more than half said they still plan to shop mostly or entirely in-store for items such as apparel, shoes and school supplies during the 2017 back-to-school season.


They’re also likely to make more than one trip to pick up items. According to Foursquare’s foot traffic analysis, parents made six trips on average to the mall and five trips to big-box retailers during the back-to-school season. More specialized retailers such as office supply and electronics stores warranted two trips on average.

With consumers heading to the stores, merchants are tackling some pain points of back-to-school shopping. Retailers like Macy’s and Walmart promote features like “click and collect” or curbside pickup to simplify the store experience for those customers looking to complete their trips as quickly and efficiently as possible. 

Consumers are driving transformation across the industry, and back-to-school shopping is no exception. Check out NRF’s Back-to-School SlideShare for more consumer trends and follow NRF’s Back-to-School Headquarters Page for additional insights throughout the 2017 season.