2018 Back to School Shopping By the Numbers

Stats, Facts and the Tips for Reaching Your K-12 and College Shoppers


Welcome to the 2018 Back-to-School shopping season! 

Since publishing our first back-to-school post just two years ago, a lot has changed.  The strategies are essentially the same, but the numbers have changed, which means the strategies you used in 2016 are gonna need a little tweaking.

That said, this post is structured the same way Lauren structured the original post back in 2016.

If you've been to your local discount store or big box retailer, you already know back-to-school season has arrived. (I'll do you one better - I saw a bunch of ceramic pumpkins lined up in front of my local grocery store yesterday.) It's the time of year when most kids are technically still on summer vacation, but they get to go shopping for whatever is hip and happening in the world of school supplies, clothing, shoes and gadgets.

Technically, back-to-school is being renamed Back-to-Class season since the stats actually include both k-12 spending as well as college spending. But for SEO purposes, we’re still going to sprinkle in the term “back-to-school” until the world decides yea or nay on “back-to-class”.

This post is packed with every statistic out there that you’ll need to know as a brand or marketer if you plan to take full advantage of back-to-school spending. 


Just How Big of An Opportunity Is It?

So, for the last few weeks, we've been sort of harping on Back-to-Class season being the 2nd largest retail holiday in the US. This year, total spending for back-to-school (which specifically refers to k-12 spending) and back-to-college (or back-to-campus) is expected to reach $82.8 billion, falling just a little bit shy of last year’s expected $83.6 billion in sales. That drop is easy to explain - there are actually fewer households with school-aged kids this year than last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Still, if you’re anything like me, you may be wondering how backpacks and mechanical pencils generate nearly $83 billion in sales every year. But check out how it breaks down in the chart below:

  • 29 million households participate in k-12 back-to-school shopping

  • 54 million school-aged children

  • B2S shopping season accounts for half of all school-related spending throughout the year

  • Estimates there will be $27.6 billion spent on k-12 back-to-school shopping

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Source: Deloitte

Take a look at the chart below. If you notice, college spending is expected to increase to $55.3 billion from last year’s $54.1 billion. This includes spending by parents who are sending their kids off to college, as well as parents and adults going back to college or pursuing advanced degrees. K-12 spending is expected to drop from last year’s $29.5 billion to around $27.5 billion for the 2018-2019 season.

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Source: National Retail Federation

Just  in case you’re still scratching your head about that $82.8 billion, I came across numbers that make this claim a little more digestible.

In the fall of 2017, about 50.7 million students attended public elementary and secondary schools. Of these, 35.6 million were in prekindergarten through grade 8, and 15.1 million were in grades 9 through 12. An additional 4.9 million students were expected to attend private schools.

Which is a lot of kids…


During the 2017 back-to-school season, the average k-12 household spent $688 on clothes, electronics, shoes and supplies for the new school year, with the most money ($237) being allocated to clothing and accessories, followed by electronics ($187).  This year, the k-12 crowd is expected to spend about the same amount ($685) while college spending on supplies, clothes, electronics, and dorm furnishings is expected to total around $942 for the school year.

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Spending also differs by the age of the student. Six in 10 college freshmen expect to spend the most money on new electronics like laptops, phones and computers. By comparison, the largest chunk of spending for high school students is on clothes, and for middle schoolers and junior high students it’s shoes, according to NRF's Director of Industry and Consumer Insights, Katherine Cullen.


So even though Back-to-Class time isn't the most obvious of contenders for that #2 slot, if you look at the numbers, it becomes crystal clear that it is a massive retail event.  Nearly 70 percent of third quarter retail sales are school-related, and more than 17 percent of a retailer's total sales for the year come from Back-to-Class purchases. 

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Timing Matters

Kids go back to school in JULY, folks! 

It's the end of July, and the kids in my neighborhood - a small town just east of Atlanta - have already gone back to school. We're outliers though. Most of the kids in this state didn't start this week. They will start next week. 

If you happen to be rolling out a Back-to-Class campaign, you've already missed me. We've got French Toast uniforms, some  and composition notebooks. We have burgundy Vans (went to four stores to find those) and rainbow Chacos (searched high and low for those before a friend stepped in a recommended a cool mom-and-pop shop a few miles away that specializes in unflattering high-end sandals - didn't know there was such a thing). The scientific calculator is safely tucked away. All that's left are the few items teachers tell me to pick up once class starts. 

Interestingly enough, I didn't go big box retailer this year. We did the malls, but left empty-handed. Instead we shopped local businesses that had competitive prices and fantastic selections. Lucky me - I ended up spending about half what I thought I would for my preschooler.  But more important, I found a new store to shop that is awesome.

My point here is not to brag about being done. It's to alert you that it's July and I'M DONE with my school shopping! That's because many of the kids in this part of the country start school at the end of July through the first week in August. So, the retailers with whom I spent my Back-to-Class dollars probably got my attention (or my daughter's attention) around Fourth of July.

Timing is crucial for localized Back-to-Class marketing. Brands need to know when kids go back to school in the specific target markets, as well as the point during the shopping season when shoppers will buy snacks vs electronics vs supplies vs clothes.

The U.S. is one of the few countries that doesn’t have a standardized start date (according to Wikipedia), so it's not just my neighborhood that's ending summer vacation early. Kids in Arizona and Indiana have been back to school a week already.  And by mid-August, most kids in the U.S. will be back in school.

That means if you're doing localized marketing campaigns, you will need to know when the kids in that market head back to class. 

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Back-to-Class shopping goes in waves

Seventy-seven percent of k-12 back-to-school shoppers plan to start shopping at least three weeks before school starts. The same is true for college shoppers.

But... starting and finishing are two different things. So... 89 percent of shoppers - even early shoppers - still have shopping to do when classes start at the end of July. In fact, folks are picking up supplies through early fall.

My point: Back-to-class shopping goes in waves. Even if you miss the first one, you still have time to catch the second one. 

Most shoppers continue buying stuff even after school has started because inevitably, there will be a million little random items missed on the first go-round.

.... blue erasers instead of red

.... 1.5-inch D-ring binders, instead of the three 1-inch O-ring binders you already bought

.... Papermate blue or Bic blue? There’s a difference.


If kids don’t get this info emailed to them over the summer, parents have to head back to the stores during the first few weeks of school to buy missing supplies for each class.


Shoppers buy different supplies at different times

Which brings me to my next point: Different types of Back-to-Class supplies are purchased at different times. For instance, clothing and school supplies see significant action in July and August while food & snacks see their peak in August. This is super important when you’re vying for attention. You want to put your brand in front of shoppers at the right point in the Back-to-School shopping cycle.


Let’s look for a moment at what’s being bought. Here’s a breakdown of how money is being spent on Back-To-School products. It’s no surprise apparel, footwear, and backpacks are leading the pack... kids like to look cool.



The Role Pricing Plays


One huge factor that affects purchase decisions is the shopper’s unyielding desire to find the best price. Shoppers are now - and always have been -  deal-hunting machines, online and offline.

It’s interesting to note that shoppers are picky when it comes to finding deals. By that I mean, they’re more neurotic about price when it comes to clothes and shoes, but prefer to pay a premium for quality when it comes to school supplies and snacks.

Forty-six percent of shoppers say price is one of their top deciding factors when it comes to Back-to-Class purchases. Sixty-two percent of Back-to-Class shoppers expect to spend less this year than they did last year.

Brand managers would be smart to remain mindful of these stats when planning their marketing strategies.

Now, if price is this big of a deal, you can bet couponing (though not extreme couponing like the people on The Learning Channel) is not far behind. In this hurried generation of two-family incomes, play dates, and successive extra curricular activities, I will let you venture one good guess on how couponing is done today.

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If you guessed mobile, you guessed right. 

People search for coupons not only on their mobile devices, but they are searching for coupons while they shop! A recent study of online coupon-searches found that 59 percent of the searches performed online containing the word “coupon” were made using a mobile device. When the search query included a top-brand name, they had an even larger percentage that came from a mobile device.

For instance, of the shoppers online hunting for Hobby Lobby coupons, 88 percent of those searches came from a mobile device. For J.C. Penney, 87 percent of customers’ coupon queries were performed using a mobile device. You can bet a fair number of those searches were performed in the store, maybe even in the checkout line.


Brands and marketers have a HUGE opportunity here to increase sales and grow their audiences by keeping these stats in mind and creating a strategy that will allow them to be where audience attention is going.


Online Retail is Super-Important for Back-to-School

The wisdom of the Digital Age says online marketing is absolutely non-negotiable for most brands. But “online” is a pretty sizable place, so the best thing any of us can do as marketers is to figure out where the eyes are.


First things first: Online shopping

E-commerce is a big part of the Back-to-Class season. While I still have a hard time believing e-commerce makes up less than 10 percent of total retail sales in the U.S. (I’ve actually seen reports that put e-comm anywhere from 8 to 13 percent of total U.S. retail sales),  I think the bright spot here is when we originally published this post in 2016, only 7.9 percent of shopping was done online. In the last two years, e-commerce has grown by about 15 percent. In the UK, the number is as high as 17 percent.

That said, about half of back-to-school shoppers (55 percent) and back-to-college shoppers (49 percent) plan to go online for at least a portion of their shopping. In all, Deloitte reports that upwards of 20 percent of that $27 billion in back-to-school spending may happen online.

Both the k-12 group and the college-bound group give preference to department stores, online retailers, and discount stores. But college shoppers actually rank online retailers over brick-and-mortar stores.

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The number of purchases that are happening online is not nearly as important as how the online experience influences a consumer's Path-To-Purchase.

Back in the day, the Path-To-Purchase used to be a very clear map of the journey consumers took on their way to making a purchase. And here's what it used to look like.


Back then, the journey was a simple one because it excluded the messiness that the digital world introduced.

This is what it looks like now.


Much less like a path, right? Looks like a timed maze.

Consumers bounce around, across various channels, mixing in-store experiences with the chaos of the online world without any sort of discernible pattern. And because of this chaos, brands need to get a firm grasp on Omni-Channel Shopping, which is the idea that buyers need to be presented with a seamless experience across all channels, allowing discovery, research, consideration, and eventual purchase to happen with fluidity between the digital and “real world” experiences.

Wordtracker posted a really cool infographic a few years ago that runs through how this type of experience affects holiday marketing.

And for a slightly different take on this concept, HubSpot published a post earlier this year that explains how multi-channel experiences should focus on nurturing existing customers... keeping them in the loop, engaging with them. Plus, cool examples of how brands like  Disney and Bank of America are doing just that. Brands should seek to be their customer's go-to option. Instead of just some random store a customer shops by happenstance on a given day. 

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Back-To-Class usage patterns for mobile devices drive home the point that online sales is not necessarily your end goal. Sales are happening offline, but the online world is a huge part of those offline purchases


Okay. We have the stats. Let’s see how we can turn stats into store traffic.


How to Harness the Power of Omni Channel Marketing


Figure out who’s really making the purchase, and segment

Most brands target the most obvious demographic while ignoring the ones that actually matter. When it comes to Back-to-Class shopping, Moms might be the ones whipping out their credit cards, but the kids are calling the shots. In our 2018 Summer-Fall Influencer Marketing Guide, we did a pretty good job of sussing out the key players.

For back-to-school season, you’re mostly going to be dealing with Millennial Moms and Alpha kids, which we talked about in Part One of the Summer-Fall Guide.

For high school and back-to-campus marketing, you’re talking Gen X Moms and their Gen Z kids, which you can learn more about in Part Two of the Summer-Fall Guide.

Here’s why you need to target both: Deloitte estimates children influence $21 billion out of more than $27 billion in k-12 back-to-school spending. That’s 76 percent!  Yet brands are still targeting mainly moms.

Why would a marketer assume the most effective method for marketing to tech-savvy kids who are perpetually online is through their moms? That's just crazy!

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You know who else gets overlooked? Men.

On average, dads will spend 37% more money shopping than moms. Why? Because saving money requires research and time many dads just aren't willing to invest. College-bound men spend about $115 more on back-to-college supplies than their co-ed classmates.

I would bet most dads just want to get in, win, and get out. And still, despite dads being big spenders and kids being a huge motivating factor as well, most brands target women exclusively when dreaming up their back-to-school marketing campaigns.

Step up your game, marketers!


Find them online to get their attention

So we’ve talked about how the omni-channel style of shopping has forever altered the journey that buyers take when making a purchase. But what does that mean to you as a marketer?

Well,  it means you’ve got your work cut out for you. It means you need to figure out what your customers are up to online while making purchase decisions, and you need to set up your presence and marketing gameplan around the digital hot spots that affect meaningful portions of YOUR specific target demographic.

In 2016, more than 11 million people in the U.S. saved almost 45 million back-to-school-related ideas on Pinterest. Take a gander at a few other important stats:

  • Mondays. Those are the high-traffic days with regard to website pageviews of back-to-school items.

  • Mobile makes up 50 percent of pageviews for back-to-school products.

  • 27 percent of shoppers plan to organize their shopping lists via Pinboards.

  • 25 percent say that they will be using Pinterest for lunch and snack ideas.

  • Facebook is the most influential platform when it comes to guiding parents’ fashion purchase decisions. A Rakuten Marketing study conducted in the UK showed that nearly one in four parents consult Facebook when looking for inspiration to fill their children’s closets.

  • Blogs and social media are now generating as many purchases as the traditional methods like television and magazines.

  • User-generated content accounts for 25% of search results.


There are many routes you can take to get your product in front of the right audience -  banner ads, Facebook ads, Instagram ads... Each platform can commandeer a notable portion of a brand’s marketing budget to help products get traction during seasonal pushes. You may say, “Simple. I’ll buy up a bunch of online ads” without taking into account that almost 25% of mobile users AND almost 200 million people are using ad blockers around the world. The inconvenient truth is online ads aren’t getting quite the mileage that they used to get.  

My advice would be to tap into the audiences of influential bloggers and social media creators within your space, à la influencer marketing.

If you’re not sold on the notion of influencer marketing, I will direct you to this awesome post we wrote a little while ago describing influencer marketing and why you need it. NOW.

If you’re already sold on it, we’ve got some fun ideas that you can incorporate into your last-minute back-to-school campaigns.

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So, listen. Since Back-To-School has already started, it’s going to be hard (not impossible) to slap together your influencer marketing campaigns in time. But we’re the experts over here at The Shelf. And the campaigns we run are beautiful!


So get in touch with Sabrina (sales@theshelf.com) if you want to talk shop. We can help you take advantage of the 2nd LARGEST retail holiday by launching your epic back to school campaigns!