A little over 50,000,000 students were enrolled in elementary and secondary schools in 2018, and while you might expect the sheer volume of younger students to lead to a large increase in back-to-school spending over their college-aged peers, you’d be wrong.
What kinds of things are Americans buying to prepare their kids for a new school year? Where and how are they making those purchases, and what about social media? We take a look at all that and more below.
Between K-12 back-to-school spending and college spending, it was estimated that Americans were going to spend around $82.8 billion for 2018, down slightly from the $83.6 billion Americans planned to spend in 2017.
Surprisingly, that makes school shopping season the second-biggest shopping period in the United States (right after the period of Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve.) We examine this in the graph below.
As you can see, back-to-school spending is second by a wide margin—with Mother’s Day spending being around $500 less per person than K-12 back-to-school spending and roughly $800 less per person than back-to-college spending.
We take a closer look at the year-to-year total spending for the school shopping season below.
As you can see from the chart above, back-to-college spending has outstripped K-12 back-to-school spending for every year of the survey. In 2018, planned spending was $27.5 billion for K-12 and $55.3 billion for college back-to-school spending, for a total of $82.8 billion in total spending for 2018.
2012 saw a sharp spike upward in spending for both college and K-12 students, and while the 2012 high hasn’t been surpassed since for K-12 students, it was surpassed for college students in both 2017 and 2018.
Interestingly, K-12 spending for 2018 dropped below the 2017 level, while college back-to-school spending has increased each year since 2015, and at a steeper rate than K-12 school season spending.
In 2018, families with K-12 students planned to spend an average of $684.79 on back-to-school items, the third largest amount since the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) annual survey began in 2003. We look at K-12 averages per family and college averages per family below.
As you can see, per household K-12 back-to-school spending in 2009 was $549; by 2018 that number had risen to $685 per household, an increase of more than $100 per household.
For college students, the numbers show similar trends, although the dollar amounts are much larger, as shown below.
In 2009, back-to-college spending was an average of $846 per household. That number rose to an average of $942 per household in 2018, a nearly $100 per household increase.
Although per household spending was down for 2018, more households were doing back-to-college shopping, making the total spent for back-to-college shopping higher than 2017’s total amount spent.
And, interestingly, men tended to spend about $115 more on average for back-to-college supplies than women.
So how soon does the average back-to-school shopper start looking for deals? We break it down below.
As you can see from the chart above, a few shoppers (10 percent) were getting a jump on the back-to-school season by starting their shopping before July.
Most shoppers (64 percent) were going shopping toward the end of July or the beginning of August, while a few last minute shoppers (1 percent) were going to wait until September to do their back-to-school shopping.
But where are we shopping for school supplies? You probably won’t find too many surprises in the data below.
Location, Location, Location
In 2018, most K-12 back-to-school shoppers (57 percent) still planned to do their back-to-school shopping at department stores. A couple of common reasons parents gave included concerns about having to return children’s clothes that might not fit, and wanting to let their children pick out some of their own supplies.
In addition, shoppers reported that they were going to make more than one trip for school supplies, and shop at more than one type of store—and most planned to do a combination of online and in-store shopping.
We break down where shoppers were planning to go in 2018 in the graph below.
As you can see from the graph above, while the majority of K-12 shoppers planned to shop at department stores, the majority of back-to-college shoppers planned to do their shopping online.
Clearly, the percentages for both groups total to more than 100 percent, so that means that shoppers planned to make purchases from multiple channels, and were not necessarily looking for one-stop shopping.
Interestingly, the back-to-college shoppers didn’t plan to go to clothing stores at all, but did plan to hit up their college bookstores; whether that was for actual books for class, or for school gear wasn’t clear.
For both groups, department stores beat out discount stores and office supply stores.
What stores in the above categories were poised to be the biggest “winners” for 2018? Walmart and Target, according to Deloitte, along with “off-price” or discount stores like TJ Maxx, Marshall’s and Ross.
This makes sense since consumers consistently reported that low prices and finding a good deal were the most important to them when shopping during the back-to-school season. In fact, when asked which stores were most likely to have good back-to-school deals, shoppers gave the following responses.
It’s probably no surprise to learn that shoppers believed Walmart would have the best back-to-school deals by a significant margin. Target and Amazon were tied at 16 percent, while 10 percent of shoppers believed that CVS, a pharmacy chain, would have the best back-to-school deals.
Believe it or not, back-to-school shoppers were so concerned about saving money that, according to one study, if they had to choose between paying $25 for overnight shipping for a forgotten-til-the-last-minute school item or driving an hour to pick the item up, shoppers would choose the drive.
What Are We Buying for Students?
Of course, the typical things that come to mind when we think of heading back to school are pencils, crayons, scissors, glue, erasers, notebooks, and in more recent years, hand sanitizer bottles and tissues.
We take a look at what else students are getting for the school year in the graphs below.
In the graph above, you can see that back-to-college students spent money on quite a few things that wouldn’t necessarily be relevant to K-12 students, such as dorm/apartment furnishings, college gear, food for their dorm/apartment, and personal care items that would normally be covered by parents for the K-12 crowd.
For the four categories in which both groups made purchases, those in the K-12 group spent more, on average, in every category except electronics, with those going back to college spending an average of $229 per person/household, and those in the K-12 group spending an average of $187.
Both groups spent less on traditional school supplies than clothes, shoes, and electronics. For those going back to college, school supplies also came after food, furnishing their dorm/apartment, and personal care.
What were the most popular items students were buying? Well, according to Pinterest, five of the most pinned back-to-school items in 2016 were:
- Russel & Hazel mini 3-ring binders (marble was especially popular)
- DIY earphone holders made from round mint containers
- Emoji school supply packs—pencils, erasers, and stickers adorned by emojis
- DIY binder clips—decorated with fabric tape, paint, or Washi tape
- DIY rainbow highlighter pens—creating a highlighter that uses three or more colors at once
Each of the items above was targeted toward high school students and middle schoolers, but nearly any age student could find something fun on the full list. You can find images of each of the items above (plus five more!) here.
Pinterest isn’t the only social website influencing our back-to-school purchases. We take a closer look at social media’s role in back-to-school shopping below.
While students themselves may not be on Facebook as much as they used to be, their parents still use it quite a bit, and a staggering 79 percent of all internet users logged into Facebook in 2018.
A 2014 survey revealed that 31 percent of parents who had students in college planned to use Facebook to research products and look for deals.
Interestingly, 71 percent of 18-24-year-olds use Instagram, and 78 percent use Snapchat. Marketers who create Instagram stories or Snapchat videos are more likely to cash in on the younger Millennial and Generation Z students.
While these age groups may not wield the most buying power, 93 percent of parents admitted that their children help make decisions in the family’s spending.
And, of course, many companies hire social media influencers to talk about their products—or some happen into social media fame when an influencer spontaneously shares their favorite pen, notebook, pillow, or clothing item, to name a few.
Wise marketers will take advantage of the social media influence—but as noted in a graphic later in this article, while 23 percent of users planned to do their back-to-school research using social media in 2018, only 1.2 percent of back-to-school purchases were influenced by social media.
So, maybe don’t go all-in on the social media advertising bandwagon just yet.
What else impacts those back-to-school purchasing decisions? We dive into ethnicity below.
Does Ethnicity Play a Role?
Does ethnicity affect back-to-school shopping? According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), it does. In 2018, 25 percent of American school-aged children were Hispanic, which means this community has a large influence on back-to-school spending.
NRF’s research showed that Hispanic parents were planning to spend an average of about $148 more per family on back-to-school items than their non-Hispanic counterparts.
We compare a few shopping trends among Hispanic and non-Hispanic back-to-school shoppers below.
As you can see from the graph above, Hispanic shoppers planned to spend more, on average, than the national average for each item above. For electronics, this group planned to spend $52 more than the national average.
Hispanic shoppers were also more likely to use their smartphones for back-to-school shopping, with 70 percent stating they planned to research items on their phones, compared to 53 percent for the national average, and 33 percent planning to redeem back-to-school coupons using their smartphones in 2018.
This group was also more likely to order online and have items shipped to their local store, with 61 percent stating they planned to do this compared to the national average of 44 percent.
And they’re not the only group of shoppers who appreciate convenience, as we learn below.
Convenience is King
While many shoppers reported having to make multiple trips to finish up school supply lists (or having to go to multiple stores to find everything), some K-12 schools are taking matters into their own hands.
In 2017, 65 percent of parents whose schools or local districts offered pre-packaged back-to-school kits bought them, and nearly half (45 percent) had purchased kits in more than one year. These pre-assembled kits already come with everything on the school supply list for each grade level for that school or schools in that district.
Depending on where students live, kits can cost anywhere from $40 to more than $100—so they may or may not be more cost-effective than shopping for everything on your own. But they will certainly save time spent in line at the store or online selecting all the necessary items.
In a Deloitte study covering Chicago, 40 percent of parents reported that they were planning to buy a pre-packaged kit for their children’s back-to-school needs. Those purchasing the kits were mostly in the $50,000 to $100,000 income level.
Some retailers, such as Target and Office Depot, have integrated the “kit” idea with their online shopping options for consumers. Users can select the correct school’s supply list, add it to their cyber cart, and all items on the list immediately populate the cart.
No fuss, no muss, just check out and items will be delivered to a store’s physical location for pick-up or delivered to your door.
Speaking of shopping online, what do the online back-to-school shopping numbers look like?
Online Back-to-School Shopping
Parents and students spent roughly $58 billion online last year when shopping for back-to-school items. That’s more than half of the projected $82.8 billion total. We break the online numbers down a little more below.
In 2018, 55 percent of K-12 back-to-school shoppers planned to shop online, versus 49 percent of back-to-college shoppers.
In the chart above, we see that shoppers tended to spend more when using their laptops, having an average cart total of $142. Tablets were next with $125 per cart, on average; and smartphones were last with $111 for the average shopping cart total.
Conversion rates (the percent of shoppers visiting a site who actually make a purchase on that site) were similar, with desktop/laptop users being more likely to make purchases from the sites they visited than smartphone users.
As you can see in the chart above, desktop/laptop users were nearly three times more likely to make a purchase from the sites they visited than smartphone users; and tablet users were nearly two times more likely to make purchases from visited sites than smartphone users.
This backs up data that shows shoppers are more likely to research items on their phones and then buy them later in person or on a computer or tablet. The top three reasons people gave for choosing not to purchase items on their smartphones were:
- Smartphone screens were too small to use for online checkout
- Mobile websites or apps were too hard to navigate to make purchases
- Mobile websites/apps didn’t have all the functionality that traditional websites did
The chart above shows that the most popular means of getting shoppers to make online back-to-school purchases last year was direct email marketing (30 percent of shoppers making purchases did so because of an email from the retailer); and traffic on the retailer’s own website.
Searches (whether paid for by a retailer or done on the shopper’s own initiative) came next, with a combined total of over 39 percent of shoppers making purchases from searches.
Social networks were second to last by a large margin—only 1.2 percent of shoppers were influenced to make purchases at retail sites because of their social networks.
There were concerns that perhaps 2018’s shoppers were tiring of online shopping and had hit a “saturation” point with the channel; however, it looks like consumers have no plans to ditch their online shopping carts anytime soon.
In fact, online searches for book bags increased by 733 percent during back-to-school season, searches for lunch boxes increased by 244 percent, and searches for pencils increased by 575 percent in 2018.
Regardless of the channel, it’s clear that back-to-school shopping is big business.
Back-to-school shopping is the second largest shopping season in the United States, followed only by the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, with shoppers’ planned spending topping $82 billion in 2018.
While students are still getting the expected pencils, pens, notebooks, and crayons, technology items are taking a large chunk of back-to-college and K-12 shoppers’ budgets.
Although the majority of shoppers prefer to do their back-to-school shopping in person, a nearly equal number did their back-to-school shopping online, or combined both in-person and online shopping to get all the supplies they needed.
Prepackaged school supply kits are growing in popularity and may soon come to a school near you. Would you buy one?
And, last but not least, don’t be like the 1 percent of shoppers who put off their back-to-school shopping until September—you may find you can’t get all the supplies on your child’s list after everyone else has decimated the store aisles.
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 303.70.
- National Center for Education Statistics, Table 203.10.
- National Retail Federation, “Back-to-School and College Spending to Reach $82.8 Billion.”
- National Retail Federation, “Back to Class 2018: Top Trends for Back-to-School and College Shopping.”
- Statista, “Average Back-to-School Spending per Household in the United States from 2004 to 2018 (in U.S. Dollars).”
- Statista, “Back-to-School Statistics and Facts.”
- Statista, “When Will You Likely Begin Your Back-to-School Shopping?”
- Chain Store Age, “Deloitte: The Top Destination for Back-to-School Shopping Is…”
- Investopedia, “Walmart, Target Likely Back-to-School Shopping Winners: Deloitte.”
- TeenVogue, “10 of the Most Popular Back to School Items on Pinterest.”
- Shopify, “Back-to-School Shopping: Tools and Trends Retailers Can Use to Cash In.”
- National Retail Federation, “Back-to-School Spotlight: Hispanic Shoppers.”
- Deloitte, “2019 Back-to-School Shopping.”
- The NPD Group, Inc., “Back-to-School Class of 2018: The Results Are In!”
- The NPD Group, Inc., “Pre-Packaged School Supply Kits Prove to Be a Popular Option for U.S. Consumers Fulfilling Back-to-School Lists.”
- Chicago Tribune, “Back to School in a Box: Parents Keep It Simple with Supply Kits.”
- CMO by Adobe, “Retail Sees Record-Breaking Back-to-School Online Shopping Season.”
- Criteo, “[Report] From Crayons to Caffeine: Trends for Back-to-School Marketing 2018.”