Big Data’s Big Back-to-School Shopping List

It’s the first of August, and summertime is winding down. Vacations are coming to an end, signaling that back-to-school time is near. It’s a time that many children eagerly anticipate — catching up with old friends and making new ones, and settling into a new daily routine. 

Back-to-school shopping for the 2014/15 school year is officially underway – and in light of the madness, we’ve discovered some interesting insights into this season’s school-minded shopper.

A Family Affair

Families shop together. Of those families, 70% will shop together with their student in-store and 36% will shop together online. 56% will create and review a shopping list before purchasing, 25% will preview retailers online for purchase ideas and 24% will preview catalogs and store circulars prior to shopping visits. 

Schools, marketers and students drive the shopping list. In fact, 92% of parents find school-supplied lists influential in their purchasing decisions and 85% will abide by their students’ wish lists. Only 7% of all parents were influenced by recommendations from other parents. 

37% of families start shopping as soon as they get their lists, while 26% begin shopping as promotions pop up throughout the summer.

“In-store shopping is still dominating the back-to-school scene, but shoppers are increasingly going online for purchases.”

In-store shopping is still dominating the back-to-school scene, but shoppers are increasingly going online for purchases. 64% of families will head to physical stores, 23% will shop on personal computers, 7% via smartphones and 6% will use tablets. 

Most shoppers use one channel for all their back-to-school needs, but many research and purchase via two or more channels. Of those utilizing more than one channel, 13% will visit retail stores for ideas before purchasing online, but the majority plans to research online before purchasing in store.

While department and discount stores will be the most visited among school shoppers, millennial students may be driving an increase in planned spending at specialty stores. The survey found 53.8% of back-to-school shoppers will shop at a clothing store, up from 51.5% last year; 27.5% will shop at electronics stores, up from 25.9% last year. Six in 10 (64.4%) will visit discount stores, 59.1% will shop at their favorite department store, 42% will shop at office supply stores, 38.2% will shop online, and 20.5% will shop at drug stores. 

For the first time, the National Retail Federation (NRF) asked school shoppers about their plans to shop at local/small businesses for their needs: 17.4% will support local/small retailer to buy school items. 

Smartphones help shoppers buy smarter. While in-store, 49% of consumers will use smart phones to redeem coupons and 40% will use them to compare prices on Amazon.

“49% of consumers will use smart phones to redeem coupons and 40% will use them to compare prices on Amazon.”

The “back-to-school” phenomenon is evolving into a mini-holiday season. According to the NRF, back-to-school is now the second busiest shopping season of the year. With this growth comes retailers looking for new opportunities – much like how holiday promotions can now start in October, back-to-school deals are now starting to creep into late June. 

In fact, people are shopping for school earlier than ever, about 25% of families with kids start buying supplies two months ahead of time, up from just 15% a few years ago.

Data from PM Digital’s fourth annual “Back To School Trend Report” suggests that search interest in the term “school supplies” peaks the first week in August. Another term that’s been gaining search interest year-over-year is “back to school sales [year]”.

$pending Habits

According to NRF’s 2014 Back-to-School Survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, the average family with children in grades K-12 will spend $669.28 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics, up 5% from $634.78 last year.

Total spending on back to school will drop slightly to $26.5 billion as the survey found there are slightly fewer students in households this summer. 

The survey found the average family shopping for high school students will spend $682.99, while spending on middle school/junior high comes in a close second at $682.13. Parents with elementary school-age children will spend an average of $580.94.

“Back-to-school shoppers will spend an average $212.35 on electronic items, up 7% from last year.”

According to the NRF, back-to-school shoppers will spend an average $212.35 on electronic items, up 7% from $199.05 last year, with total spend expected to reach $8.4 billion. High school students and their families specifically will spend an average $229.88 on electronic items.

Tablets and computers represent the most popular back-to-school products, PM Digital reported, and far outweigh searches for other products like backpacks. 

Perhaps due to school districts’ growing requests for classroom supply contributions, spending on school supplies will increase 12% to an average of $101.18, compared to $90.49 last year. Additionally, shoppers will spend an average of $231.30 on clothes, up from $230.85, and $124.46 on shoes, up from $114.39 in 2013. 

U.S. back-to-school online sales are expected to increase 16% to $50 billion. This is a significant milestone for the online retail industry as back-to-school sales only recently surpassed $30 billion mark back in 2011. The 16% growth rate is also almost triple the 5.9% growth rate expected for the online retail industry as a whole in the third quarter of 2014.


Research by Thomson Reuters and Ipsos indicated certain triggers influenced back-to-school purchases. Sales and special offers were the leading influencers in aiding a purchase.

In fact, more than 70% of shoppers are likely to tap into offers such as free shipping, email promotions, gifts with purchase, buy one, get one free and store-only promotions. 

More than half of shoppers will take advantage of flash sales or limited time promotions, social media promotions, outlet/clearance sales, web-only promotions and direct mailers.

“Social media influence is dominated by Facebook.”

According to Baynote’s Back-to-School Survey, this season’s top influencers are primarily online. Amazon tops the rankings, followed by online ratings and reviews, Google search results, email promotion and paper catalogs. 

Social media influence is dominated by Facebook, with 24% saying they or their student will use the social network when completing back to school shopping; the number rises to 31% when accounting for only college age students who say Facebook plays a role in online back to school shopping.

In conclusion, back-to-school shopping continues to evolve into an experience that is becoming more conducive to shopping online. As millions of additional children enroll in school and new parents continue to rely less on peer recommendations for back-to-school purchases, it enables online retailers with timely marketing strategies – and a distributed data warehouse – to understand and capitalize on consumer tendencies to increase sales.

Remember, school shopping doesn’t last forever, so amongst all the chaos and long checkout lines, whether you’re online or in-store, enjoy the time spent with your loved ones. 

Happy shopping!