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Consumer Trends

Generation Z is shaping the back-to-class shopping season

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As school starts for another year, students and their families continue to shop for back-to-school items. And the back-to-college shopper is contributing the biggest share of that shopping this year, spending about $250 more than the average K-12 shopper for a total of nearly $55 billion. Many of those shopping for themselves are members of Generation Z, born after 1995.

“This is a group that's really willing to put themselves out there, really willing to make their own money,” NRF Director of Retail and Consumer Insights Katherine Cullen says. “And as a result, when they come into their full spending power, they're going to be really critical.”

On this episode of Retail Gets Real, Cullen discusses trends from NRF’s annual survey of back-to-class shoppers and how this generation of consumers that grew up with the internet and smartphones is shaping retail.

“They like to be part of your marketing and part of the process.”
Katherine Cullen
National Retail Federation

With events like “Black Friday in July” and Amazon’s Prime Day, consumers have started shopping for back-to-class earlier in the year but spread out their shopping to take advantage of sales throughout the season. Nonetheless, many haven’t finished, and Cullen says a significant number “plan on shopping [until] right before school starts.”

With Generation Z’s “digital natives” flexing their spending muscles, online shopping, curbside pickup and shipping directly to campus are popular options — along with use of some innovative high-tech. “If you're shopping for your dorm room, there are these virtual experiences where you can walk through a digital space,” Cullen says, “and see how that comforter will look or that wallpaper.”

Mobile-savvy Gen Z is also different in the way they engage with brands. “They like to be part of your marketing and part of the process,” Cullen says. Retailers like Target and H&M are employing social media, particularly Instagram, to reach out to Gen Z and forego professional models in their ads in favor of real college students.

Listen to the episode for interesting and surprising facts about the back-to-class shopping season and the Gen Z shopper in particular. For more data and insights on the $83 billion shopping season, check out NRF’s Back-to-School Headquarters.


Jennifer Overstreet is a co-host on NRF’s Retail Gets Real podcast. Meet all the co-hosts and learn more about the show.

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