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Back-to-school (BTS) and back-to-college (BTC) spending are generally forecast to end up strong again this year, according to a number of recent reports. In this article, we’ll briefly summarize spending trends from the NRF’s back-to-school (BTS) survey, which we’ve chosen for consistency with previous years. After that, we’ll pick out a key data point from various pieces of research and point you in the direction where you can find more.

Spending Trends

All in all, it looks like this will count as a bright season for back-to-school and back-to-college spending. Based on its annual surveys, the NRF estimates that the combined total to be spent on K-12 and college will reach $82.8 billion, almost matching last year’s $83.6 billion. (Numerous similar surveys this year from the NRF surrounding major retail events – such as Mother’s Day – have likewise found spending to be strong, though slightly off last year’s record pace.)

Of the combined total to be spent on back-to-school and back-to-college, $55.3 billion is projected to be spent on back-to-college, up 2.2% from last year’s record to set a new high. The remaining $27.5 billion is for back-to-school, down about 6.8% from last year but still the third-highest figure in the survey’s history.

For what it’s worth, there isn’t full agreement on the trajectory of spending. For example, several of the below-cited surveys find respondents to be increasing their spending from last year. And eMarketer expects a 3.5% rise in retail back-to-school sales, though that’s slightly down from last year’s 3.7% increase. (eMarketer expects that retail e-commerce back-to-school sales will grow by 15.4% to represent almost one-tenth – 9.7% – of all the season’s sales.)

Fast Facts & Research Studies

While the following isn’t an exhaustive list, we’ve highlighted several studies relating to the BTS season. For each study we’ve picked out an interesting data point, named the source and then provided the link to read more. So use this guide at your own leisure.

Note: we are not including data points about which will be the top-spending categories, as the various surveys are in disagreement over this (tech, clothing and school supplies being key items). Shopping destinations will largely only be mentioned in the context of significant trends, as the research also differs on this topic – though in-store buying remains more popular than e-commerce for the time being. For more data on those areas, click on the links below to visit the individual studies.

So here goes.

  • Back-to-school shopping may be starting earlier, as 77% of shoppers planned to begin their shopping at least 3 weeks prior to school starting, up from 74% intending to do so last year and 64% a decade ago. Source: NRF.
  • Almost two-thirds of total BTS spending is expected to have come between later July (last 2 weeks) and early August (first 2 weeks), though more than one-third will still be shopping in late August. The amount of expected in-store spending overall is double that of planned online spend. Source: Deloitte.
  • It’s interesting to compare the survey findings concerning shopping timing with retail advertising trends. Back to school ad spending peaked the week of August 7 last year, the same as in 2016. The major retailers tracked each spent at least half of their BTS advertising budgets between July 24 and August 27, putting them largely in line with consumers’ spending behaviors. Back-to-school ad spending among the large retailers tracked was down by 20% year-over-year, though. These retailers allocated about one-quarter of their total 2017 spend to BTS-themed advertising. (For context, eMarketer has estimated in the past that the season accounts for about 17% of full-year retail sales.) Source: Kantar Media.
  • It’s fascinating to again compare those above results with a separate analysis of online shopping activity across thousands of brand and retailer sites, which found that Sunday August 6th was the single biggest traffic day of the back-to-school shopping season last year. (Advertiser spending peaked the following week, apparently.) The analysis also reveals that some of the highest traffic days of the season fell on Mondays. Source: Bazaarvoice.
  • Finally (as regards timing), a report indicates that retailers enjoy a higher repurchase rate from customers who make their first BTS buy in July than from those who do so in August. Source: Bluecore.
  • Retailers engaging in BTS advertising may want to target dads. An analysis finds that dads spend about 10% more than moms and that half planned to shop for BTS this season. Advertisers targeting moms may want to push promotions, as three-quarters of moms shopping for BTS plan to take advantage of BTS sales and promotions. Source: Oath.
  • Meanwhile, the biggest bone of contention between kids and their parents relates to budgets versus brands. One of teens’ key complaints is that their parents insist on buying the budget item rather than the brand, while parents’ top complaint about teens is that they want the name brand when they can only afford the budget item. Source: Ebates.
  • Sticking with the parent-child dynamic for a moment, a separate survey finds that parents spend less time shopping when they bring their kids along, but end up spending almost one-third more when their kids do tag along. Source: Citi Retail Services.
  • Children will, whether they accompany their parents or not, likely influence about three-quarters of back-to-school spending during the season. Children’s influence on parents’ BTS shopping is likely to be highest for Clothing & Accessories and for Electronic Gadgets, with lesser influence on Computers & Hardware and Computer Supplies. Those latter categories also happen to be ones over-indexing in planned online shopping (maybe because parents do that alone?!). As regards shopping destinations, Mass Merchants are the top destination in this survey, though off-price stores are trending up. Source: Deloitte.
  • Another survey indicates that in-store shopping remains dominant, with almost 9 in 10 shoppers to make purchases in physical stores. Of note, click-and-collect is becoming much more popular among BTS shoppers, 40% of whom will engage in this method of shopping this year. Virtually all BTS shoppers who have already used click-and-collect say that they’ve bought additional items in-store when picking up their online order. Source: ICSC.
  • BTS shoppers are increasing their online spending, though. In analyzing spending at BTS retailers among an audience of likely families with children, a report reveals that last year the amount spent per purchase among online-only customers grew by 7.2% year-over-year, even as the number of purchases declined. In another result, Amazon’s Prime Day is encouraging earlier spending on BTS items, though brick-and-mortar still accounted for the bulk (73.3%) of spending. Source: Cardlytics.
  • A final point – about Amazon Prime Day. Fully 54% of shoppers surveyed last month for a back-to-school (BTS) and back-to-college report said they expected to do some BTS shopping on Amazon Prime Day. That figure jumped to 70% among 18-24-year-old respondents. Source: The Integer Group.

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