Shoppers to stock up for back-to-college

RetailME Bureau

Having a longer list of items to buy that are also commonly known to be pricier than their younger counterpart, college students and their families are the real “golden geese” when it comes to school shopping. NRF’s 2014 Back-to-College survey found the average US college student and their family will spend $916.48 on dorm furniture, school supplies, electronics and more, up 10% from $836.83 last year. Total college spending is expected to reach $48.4 billion.

Combined college and school spending is expected to reach $74.9 billion.

“The ‘varsity’ class often gets overlooked each summer as back-to-school shoppers drive the news, but the truth is that today, college students and their parents contribute a significant amount to the economy,” says NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay. “Not immune to economic challenges, college students themselves and their parents will take great care when checking items off their lists. Retailers, hoping to get a head start on this extremely competitive shopping season, will attract these millennials with promotions through Instagram and other social channels, as well as through content that speaks to these tech-savvy, fashion-forward students.”

College shoppers to invest in supplies, electronics

When it comes to purchases of electronic items and computer-related equipment, college students and their parents plan to spend an average of $243.79 on laptops, desktop computers, netbooks, tablets, smartphones and more, up 20% over last year’s $203.28 and the highest amount since 2009. Graduate students will spend the most on electronics ($275.24). After cutting back last year, spending on school supplies is expected to increase 19% to $74.80 on average.

Likely driven by fashion-forward millennials hoping to head to college in style, parents and their students will spend 13% more on apparel ($138.73 vs. $122.70 last year). Others will spend on food items ($103.87 vs. $104.44 last year), shoes ($77.60 vs. $65.60), personal care items ($78.08 vs. $65.08), and gift cards ($55.56 vs. $65.12.)

Overall, broken out by grade, freshmen and their families will spend the most at an average of $908.69, followed by graduate students ($856.29), juniors ($791.08), sophomores ($670.89) and seniors ($567.52).

With an array of items to stock up on before classes start, parents will take their college students all over town to get the best deals. According to the survey, most (50.5%) will shop at discount stores, up from 48.3% last year, and department stores (46.6%), up from 42.7% last year. Online will be a popular destination for shoppers: more than two in five (44.6%) will check out retailers’ websites for special promotions, up from 37.1% last year and the highest in the survey’s history.

Others will shop at collegiate bookstores (41.9%), office supply stores (36.3%), and clothing stores (34%). Additionally, 13.2% will shop at small/local businesses.

Men to spend more

Usually the big spender when it comes to college shopping, men are no different this year. The survey found men will spend an average of $976.43 to get their dependent ready for college, up from $963.27 last year. Women will spend an average of $859.73, up significantly over last year’s $717.32. Men won’t waste their time getting to the electronics store either: the survey found men will spend an average of $260.34 on shiny new gadgets, up from $227.06 last year. Not to be outdone, women will spend $228.12 on average, up from $180.81 last year.

Recognising the benefits of end-of-season prices and promotions, parents of college students and the students themselves may be taking a cue from K-12th grade shoppers and planning to begin shopping later this summer. According to the survey, one-quarter (25.6%) will begin shopping one to two weeks before school starts, up from 19.9% last year. But there are still plenty of early-bird shoppers: nearly three in 10 (28.2%) will shop two months before school, and one-third (33.4%) will shop three weeks to one month before school. Fewer shoppers will go after school starts, perhaps knowing there will be less likely of a chance to get a hot item to show off to classmates (6.5% vs. 10.8% last year).

“College shoppers generally cannot take the kind of gamble their younger counterparts can by waiting until the last minute to buy what they need for school — especially given their timeframes to return to class or even make a big move across country — but this year, we are seeing that they too want to play the waiting game to see if deals are better later on,” says Pam Goodfellow, director for consumer insights at Prosper Insights.

Online, mobile shopping to aid shopping efforts

For seven out of 10 (77.2%) college students and their families, the economy is a contributing factor to how, when, where and why they shop for college items. Though the findings are much lower than previous years when nearly 85% said the economy would impact their spending plans, families today are still making adjustments to ease the impact on their budgets.

The survey found one-third (33%) will do more comparative shopping online because of the economy, up from 31.7% last year, and 21%  will shop online more often as a result, up from 18.6% last year and the highest in the six years NRF has been asking the question. Additionally, 10.1% said the economy is impacting students’ living situations, and 12% said the economy is impacting where students go to college (i.e. two-year versus four-year, closer to home, public versus private, etc).

When it comes to mobile usage, nearly six in 10 (57.8%) will use their smartphone in some fashion as they shop for college items. Of those with smartphones, the survey found one-third (33.8%) will research products, the highest since NRF added mobile shopping questions to its survey in 2011. Additionally, one in five (22.4%) will purchase items, up from 19.1% last year and another survey high, and 29.8% will look up retailer information, up from 20.9% last year.

More than half (54.5%) of tablet owners will use their tablet to shop for college items. Specifically, 37.4% will research products, and 27% will use their tablet to purchase items.

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