With the reasons ranging from shoppers buyers wanting to see what’s trend-right this fall to waiting for the best deals to arrive, the back-to-school (BTS) period continues to find a lot of procrastinators.

The average family with children in grades K-12 had completed only 45 percent of their shopping as of early August, according to the NRF’s annual Back-to-School Shopping Survey. That’s down from a peak of 52 percent at the same time in 2013 and 48 percent last year, and the lowest level since 40 percent in 2012.

Of parents surveyed August 1 to 9, only 13 percent had completed all their shopping, and 23 percent had not started at all. The results come even though the number of parents who planned to start shopping at least two months before the beginning of school was up this year at 27 percent, compared with 22 percent last year.

Among K-12 parents, 79 percent said they still needed to buy basic supplies such as pencils and paper, up from 77 percent at the same time last year, followed by 75 percent who needed to buy apparel, up from 70 percent; 58 percent still needed to buy footwear, up from 57 percent.

Not so surprisingly, the delays are being blamed on similar factors as those heard earlier in the decade when the trend first occurred:

  • Waiting on trends: Purchases of apparel, backpacks and footwear are being postponed until kids see what’s in style this fall;
  • Waiting on deals: Much like the holiday selling period, consumers are holding out until the biggest discounts arrive late in the season, particularly on big-ticket items like laptops;
  • Closer to need: The generally hot weather across the country works against the buy-now-wear-now trend for many BTS items (outerwear, sweaters, etc.) but stocking up on school supplies can also wait until classes start.

Other reasons given in the past for some of the delays have been general consumer caution, later school start dates and needing to find out about school requirements.

The changes are extending BTS, the second-largest selling season after winter holiday. Some retailers are promoting as early as late June and sales continue through late September.

The early deals may be paying off. According to Deloitte’s 2017 Back-to-School survey, shoppers who start before August are likely to spend 16 percent more than those starting in August or later.

In a discussion of the topic on retailwire.com, the popularity of Amazon Prime in July was cited as another factor that may have pulled sales away from traditional BTS selling as well as the varying school schedules across the country.

But many of the RetailWire BrainTrust panelists felt the delays show how consumers are generally making purchases closer to the time of consumption than in the past as well as consumers holding out for deals.

Cathy Hotka, principal, Cathy Hotka & Associates, wrote, “This is just another symptom of savvy shoppers, with access to tons of information, waiting to get the best deals on everything. It has also been hot on the East Coast, so there’s no reason for parents to buy sweaters and other cooler-weather items. There used to be several selling seasons; now there have to be dozens.”

“Buying closer to need is also a big factor with Amazon possibly playing a larger role than even the weather,” added Carol Spieckerman, president, Spieckerman Retail. “Buying closer to need is also a big factor with Amazon possibly playing a larger role than even the weather. Shoppers are buying closer to need because they can. Why hit the stores when you can order on Amazon Prime and get it the following day (and send back whatever doesn’t work)? Retailers would be smart to monitor day-in and day-out value in relation to the competition rather than getting trigger happy with promotions.”

A few questioned the value of starting BTS promotions in June just after school closes for summer break. Paula Rosenblum, managing partner, RSR Research, stated, “No one wants to go clothes shopping (or anything else for that matter) when it’s 95 degrees outside. Sometimes, patience is a virtue. Retailers seem to have forgotten how to be patient.”

Art Suriano, CEO, The TSi Company, suggested, “Perhaps retailers would do better narrowing the seasons, saving millions of dollars on advertising and reinvesting those dollars into their stores so when the customers do come in, they have a much better customer experience and wind up spending a lot more.”

The delays in buying wasn’t the only change seen in this year’s round of surveys detailing BTS selling.


Deloitte’s 10th annual back-to-school survey found mass merchants and off-price retailers are becoming the go-to venues while traditional department stores and specialty clothing retailers take a back seat.

  • 81 percent of respondents plan to shop at mass merchants. This is a 24 percentage point jump over of last year.
  • 28 percent plan to shop at off-price stores. This is up from 10 percent in 2016.
  • 28 percent say they’ll shop traditional department stores, which is down from 54 percent last year.
  • Just eight percent of parents plan to visit specialty clothing stores, falling from 25 percent in 2016.

The survey also revealed a category shift among the items respondents intend to buy for their children. Clothing and accessories are expected to account for 55 percent of families’ spending – up 10 percentage points from last year. Meanwhile, computers and hardware will take up just 14 percent of the spending; this is four percent lower than last year.

International Council of Shopping Centers

The International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC)’s annual Back-To-School Spending survey found that 89 percent of BTS consumers plan to visit shopping center and malls this season.

The physical interaction with goods was found to be the top reason for back-to-school shoppers to visit stores:

  • 46 percent of those shoppers who will visit stores cited the “ability to see, touch, or try on the merchandise.”
  • 36 percent of those shoppers who will visit stores cited the “ability to browse/ease of buying specific items.”
  • 35 percent of those shoppers who will visit stores cited the “convenience of one-stop shopping.”
  • 34 percent of those shoppers who will visit stores cited “avoiding shipping fees.”

The survey also found that parents bringing their children increases overall expenditures. Sixty-eight percent of back-to-school shoppers say that when shopping with their children, they tend to spend more than if they had shopped on their own while 28 percent were driven to the store by their children.

ICSC’s survey showed that BTS is at least or may be more price-driven than the holiday selling period. Two-fifths (40 percent) will wait to start back-to-school shopping until they see advertisements or sale prices in stores. Nearly 90 percent say they are influenced by promotions in terms of the amount they spend and the items they purchase.

“Back-to-school is one of the shopping seasons where we really find people looking for specific items at the best price,” said Tom McGee, president and CEO of ICSC. “Consumers are more informed than ever and research prices and products prior to making a purchase so it isn’t surprising that so many shoppers are waiting for sales and discounts before buying their back-to-school items.”

Other findings:

  • The average back-to-school shopper is expected to spend $353.20. Those making purchases for children in grades K-12 expect to spend $309.60 on average, while those buying for college/post-secondary plan to spend $437.80 on average.
  • Discount stores continue to be the most popular venue for back-to-school shoppers with about 69 percent of them shopping those retailers. Office supply stores (37 percent) and department stores (32 percent) will also see strong activity during this back-to-school season.
  • Back-to-school shoppers will utilize their mobile devices while in-store shopping for merchandise. Of the 81 percent who will do so, 58 percent will compare prices, 39 percent will download digital coupons, 38 percent will check availability/inventory, and 30 percent will take pictures of items that might be purchased.
  • When it comes to shopping online, 30 percent of consumers intend to order items online from retailers with a physical store presence and pick them up at these locations. Already, among shoppers who have used the click-and-collect method, 81 percent have made an additional purchase(s) at other stores or establishments when picking up their online order.

A.T. Kearney

A.T. Kearney’s third annual Back-to-School Survey showed a strong trend toward increasing mobile and online shopping. This included a 4 percent bump in BTS shoppers shopping online-only, which the consultant firm attributed to Millennials coming into their parenting years.

The study found that, in aggregate, consumers plan to spend more than last year at all levels save post-secondary. In addition, consumers are becoming increasingly demanding as they expect better shopping experiences and lower costs, with free expedited shipping offers and the rewards of loyalty programs. Compared to 2016, the importance of these four categories increased between 2 percent and 5 percent.

Ryan Fisher, A.T. Kearney Retail Practice partner and co-author of the report, said, “Overall, the back-to-school season should be good news for retailers who have been making omnichannel and especially mobile investments; and is perhaps a wakeup call to those who continue to tread in more traditional footsteps.”

Customer Portfolios Back-to-School Survey 

A survey from Customer Portfolios, a multi-channel database marketing services provider based in Boston, underscored the importance of creating a seamless, omni-channel buying experience.

Among the findings:

  • 64 percent plan to shop and research products online – yet only 51 percent plan to purchase online.
  • 32 percent plan to increase their online spending.
  • Most shoppers are inclined to purchase from retailers that have discounts (96 percent), free shipping (79 percent), coupons (74 percent), and buy-one-get-one deals (58 percent).
  • 71 percent of respondents want to hear about back-to-school discounts through email.
  • 40 percent want to hear about discounts from a digital advertisement.
  • 35 percent want to hear about discounts through an in-store display, 32 percent through direct mail, and 19 percent through text message.

Huntington Bank Backpack Index

The Eleventh-annual Huntington Bank Backpack Index, released by Huntington Bancshares Huntington in cooperation with Communities In Schools, found rising costs for classroom supplies and school activity fees continuing to pressure BTS budgets for families.

Although the cost for the sample list of supplies rose nominally at the elementary and middle school levels, high school costs – the highest impact on parents – decreased by a few dollars year over year.

For the 2017-2018 school year, according to the Backpack Index, parents can expect to pay per child:

  • $662 for elementary school children, a 1 percent increase compared to 2016.
  • $1,001 for middle school children, a 4.6 percent increase compared to 2016.
  • $1,489 for high school students, $9 less than 2016, a less than 1 percent decrease.

The index tracking classroom supply and school fee costs passed on to parents has been calculated since 2007 to highlight the added burden of public school expenses beyond assessed taxes.

Communities In Schools provides supplies to students in need and partners with public school systems to ensure supportive resources are available so teachers don’t have to pay out of pocket to equip their classrooms. Huntington adopts a lower-income public school in each of its markets to help lend support.

“We need to be sure that every child in America comes to school equipped for success,” said Dale Erquiaga, president and CEO of Communities In Schools. “But many students struggle with the cost of basic school supplies, let alone the cost for school sports, clubs or activities. That’s why we bring existing community resources inside schools to make sure that no student starts out behind on the very first day of school.”

Photo courtesy Zappos