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Back-to-School Shopping and eCommerce 2016

The long days of dusty summer baseball scrimmages and pavement football games are winding to a close as the later weeks of August draw closer. In the U.S., the back-to-school shopping season is becoming quite the shopping holiday, second in total retail spending only to the winter holidays, such as Cyber Monday and Black Friday. In 2015, digital shoppers spent over $56 billion online in preparation for the school year, a figure expected to increase to $65 billion this year.

A handful of eCommerce trends have been characterized in recent research for the 2016 school-ready shopping season…


  • Five product areas will likely see popularity in digital sales rise during the back-to-school season: apparel & accessories, books & music, computers & consumer electronics, office equipment & supplies, and toys & hobbies (including sporting goods). These online categories are expected to grow approximately 17% this year, the fastest growth rate since 2011. Retail eCommerce sales of furniture are also projected to increase by roughly 16% this year with the implementation of dorm delivery shipping for back-to-college students, which brings another interesting point…


  • Back-to-school versus back-to-college shopping presents an interesting difference in retail sales. Those shopping online for back-to-school spent over $13 billion on apparel & accessories, or significantly more than half of their budget. Digital shoppers purchasing for back-to-college spent considerably less on apparel (roughly $10 billion) and more on electronics and college-specific categories, such as dorm supplies. Back-to-college purchases are also more likely to take place online, as more retailers experiment with convenient fulfillment options geared towards the traveling college student, such as holding items at a local store or future-date shipping.


  • Mobile has become a more significant means of purchasing than years previous. In 2015, approximately 13% of U.S. retail eCommerce sales and 37% of online shopping traffic came from smartphone shoppers. The shift towards mobile traffic and sales is expected to continue this season, with a projected mobile commerce growth of nearly 47% (eMarketer). A 2016 Bizrate Insights survey found that 48% of digital buyers planned to purchase back-to-school items using a mobile device while 69% of respondents planned to research products via a mobile device.


  • Students turn to social media to inform their shopping decisions. Though parents and their pocketbooks remain essential to picking and purchasing items, students of all ranges (including college kids) have increasingly become key decision makers when shopping, and rely heavily on image- and video-driven social platforms to stay current with the latest trends. According to a Deloitte survey, teens (defined as age 14 to 18) have the highest rate of visual based app selection, with 41% of app downloaders choosing predominantly photo and video apps (think Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube, to name a few). For shoppers between the age of 14 and 25, over 68% reported that their purchases were influenced by social media buzz (recommendations or mentions), and 52% claimed to be influenced by social media advertisements. Pinterest reported that 7 million people saved 23 million back-to-school pins in 2015, a trend expected to continue growth this year.


As teachers and school districts distribute back-to-school lists and shoppers bustle through stores, the ease of online shopping can alleviate stressful crammed-shelf in-store shopping ventures. Product categories such as apparel, books, and electronics will garner the most purchases, with an interesting buyer delineation forming between back-to-school shoppers and back-to-college shoppers. Mobile commerce continues to rise, with more customers researching and purchasing with their smartphones. Students’ purchases are greatly influenced by visual social platforms and peruse blogs or image-heavy look books for school-ready fashion advice. The back-to-school season continues to drive sales, and retailers should keep a close watch on developing trends to take advantage of this budding eCommerce holiday.