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KEY POINTS

This is the second report in our US Back-to-School series for 2018. Here, we review the digital trends that we expect to see this back-to-school shopping season.

  • Social media is losing its influence over back-to-school shoppers. Fewer consumers plan to use it in their shopping for this season. Retailers continue to push their campaigns, incorporating more content from unpaid customers who seem authentic and reach a market beyond the stores’ follower bases.
  • Well over half of back-to-school shoppers will buy online this year, with survey data suggesting that we will see a big year-over-year leap in online shopper numbers. We expect m-commerce to drive growth in online retail sales as consumers seek out convenient ways to shop.
  • Voice assistants are likely to be used more for research than for purchase and will complement shoppers’ use of other channels this back-to-school season.

Introduction

Back-to-school shopping marks the second-biggest shopping season of the year, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF). As we noted in the first report in this series, this year, we expect to see US back-to-school sales grow by a solid 3%–4% year over year. Consumers’ shopping habits for back-to-school products is changing. In a transforming retail landscape, we expect these digital trends to define the ways consumers shop in the 2018 back-to-school shopping season.

  1. Contrary to what some readers may expect, consumers are actually becoming less reliant on social media for assistance in back-to-school shopping.
  2. Omnichannel offerings enable retailers to serve shoppers who are looking for convenience. A number of retailers are engaging shoppers with mobile and cross-channel services.
  3. E-commerce is set to make strides this year, with more and more shoppers planning to shop online for some portion of their back-to-school purchases.
  4. Mobile commerce offers the convenience that parents seek in back-to-school shopping, and we expect the mobile channel to drive the anticipated leap in online sales.
  5. Voice commerce, such as placing product orders through assistants like Amazon Alexa, is still abstract to most consumers, but will see an increase in the user base from multitasking back-to-school shoppers.

For consumers, the back-to-school shopping period is not without stress. According to online cashback site Ebates, 75% of parents say that back-to-school shopping creates tension with their children. We expect this to underpin growth in the use of digital tools and channels: a number of our identified digital trends are gaining popularity because they provide convenience that shoppers hope will reduce this stress.

Social Media’s Role Dwindles, but Retailers Continue Their Campaigns

Usage of digital tools and platforms is not on an upward-only trajectory. The role social media plays in back-to-school sales is actually falling, according to research by Deloitte. Its 2018 survey of back-to-school shoppers found only 23% of respondents plan to use social media as a shopping tool, down from 27% last year. Shoppers planning to use social media to find out about promotions fell to 63% this year from 75% last year, and those looking to receive coupons dropped five percentage points year over year to 59%. Despite these declines, these cost-saving reasons remain the major drivers of social-media use in the back-to-school shopping process.

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Pinterest is one of the most popular sites for back-to-school searches. According to the site, 47 million people searched the platform for back-to-school ideas in 2017 alone. Pinterest hosts a catalog of couponers, who post back-to-school savings strategies and guides for where to find the best prices. Users also peruse the platform for an array of back-to-school-related ideas, including premade shopping lists and daily schedules, in addition to style trends and product reviews.

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Some retailers have established hashtags linked to their back-to-school campaigns to generate awareness of their offerings:

Office Depot has coined #BacktoSchoolProud on Instagram to frame its offerings. Posts shared highlight products and upcoming back-to-school-related events, and some direct users to Office Depot’s website.

Staples has taken a similar angle, using #BacktoSchoolSpecialists. This phrase seems to rekindle the association between back-to-school shopping and office supply stores as consumer planning steers away from them.

American Eagle has incorporated its back-to-school line in its fall campaign. The company encourages shoppers to share outfit pictures using #AExME, coined to celebrate individuality—thus including “me” in the hashtag—and youth culture. Though the hashtag has almost 25,000 posts on Instagram, only a handful come from American Eagle’s own account. Vocalized through personal accounts, this publicity authenticates the trends and extends American Eagle’s reach beyond its follower base.

Omnichannel Offerings Equip Retailers to Capture More Sales

Omnichannel retail provides an opportunity to win shoppers that have not yet determined their back-to-school shopping plans. According to a survey by Deloitte, shoppers plan to spend 57% of their budget in-store, 23% online, and are undecided about the remaining 20%. That final portion encompasses a $5.5 billion market opportunity, and omnichannel retailers must be ready to fight for those dollars.

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In particular, retailers must deliver convenience and engage customers through smartphones. Some 77% of US adults own a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Center. Below, we highlight a few examples of how retailers are implementing these strategies that will advantage both retailers and shoppers in the back-to-school season:

Macy’s offers an in-store scan-and-pay system through its app. Shoppers find their products in-store, which allows them to try on their clothes before purchasing. Shoppers then scan the barcodes on their items and pay on the app, stopping at a designated counter for a team member to confirm payment and remove sensors. This solution speeds up the shopping process, which becomes especially beneficial in the peak shopping days of early August.

JCPenney and Kmart are among the many retailers who provide shoppers with an opposite solution. Customers select their items and pay in the stores’ apps. App shoppers can pick up their purchases at a store on the same day or schedule to get their items from the location nearest their college campuses. Common to retailer apps, these features prove useful when stores are packed with back-to-school shoppers.

Walmart’s click-and-collect service proves useful for discount seekers who want to avoid in-store item hunting. Shoppers can select the items they need online and collect their baskets at a nearby store without leaving their cars. Back-to-college shoppers can also arrange to pick up their goods at a location near campus.

Staples includes a feature on its app called Scan My List. Parents upload photos of their back-to-school shopping lists, and Staples will load a cart based on best-available options from the list. Shoppers can either pick up their items in-store or have them shipped.

Target’s School List Assist offers a service similar to Staples. Users can search for their schools’ lists on Target’s interface, choose which products they want, and fill their baskets, which can be picked up in-store or delivered to their homes.

Amazon lets parents create subsidiary accounts for their children and refers to the account group as a “Household.” This delegation solution might aid the family stress associated with back-to-school shopping.

E-Commerce Continues to Take a Share of the Market

The online channel will continue to build share of back-to-school sales this year. According to Prosper Insights & Analytics’ July survey, the proportion of adults with school-age children who will undertake back-to-school shopping online has grown to 55.4% this year, leaping almost 10 percentage points year over year.

As we show below, those consumers that have an Amazon Prime membership show still-higher rates of online shopping, with almost two-thirds expecting to shop for back-to-school products online this year.

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Mobile Commerce Makes Strides with Convenience-Craving Shoppers

We expect mobile transactions to underpin the growth in e-commerce this year. According to Prosper, some 45.6% of shoppers will use smartphones or tablets to research products and compare prices, making this the most commonly reported plan for mobile use in back-to-school shopping. The number of respondents who plan to use a mobile device for back-to-school purposes, including research and buying products, has risen by 10.3 percentage points since 2014 to 66.3%, and 33% plan in particular to make purchases from their mobile devices.

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While many shoppers will be shopping via their smartphones, using mobile payment services for in-store transactions is a much less popular choice. Only 8.4% of mobile users are planning to pay in-store with mobile devices, according to Prosper. The minimal added convenience helps to explain such low uptake: unlike m-commerce, mobile payments do not inherently enable the savings or convenience that back-to-school shoppers seek, as other payment forms are no more complicated.

As shopping via mobile devices grows, desktop and laptops are losing prominence. The proportion of consumers planning to back-to-school shop on their desktops or laptops fell from 57% in 2017 to 49% this year, according to Deloitte. The proportion of shoppers planning to use their mobile devices rose four percentage points this year, to 53%.

Voice Assistance Holds Potential for Growth in the Near Future

Voice commerce holds the potential to grow rapidly this year, though from a very small base, as consumers become more familiar with voice assistance. Assistants such as Amazon Alexa or Google Home, can respond to users’ questions when they are researching products or looking to place orders. In particular, we expect more back-to-school shoppers to use voice assistants to complement their use of other shopping channels this year: shoppers are likely to turn to Alexa or Google Home to find out store opening hours, research promotions and find or build shopping lists.

According to Citi Retail Services, a division of Citigroup that works with directly with retailers, 19% of parents aged between 18 and 29 are using voice assistants for back-to-school shopping to allow for multitasking and some 56% of voice commerce takes place on mobile devices rather than smart speakers. As a majority of adults already own smartphones, there is room for growth in the adoption of voice for buying products but especially for research.

Key Takeaways

  • Social media is losing its influence over back-to-school shoppers. Fewer consumers plan to use it in their shopping for this season. Retailers continue to push their campaigns, incorporating more content from unpaid customers who seem authentic and reach a market beyond the stores’ follower bases.
  • Well over half of back-to-school shoppers will buy online this year, with survey data suggesting that we will see a big year-over-year leap in online shopper numbers. We expect m-commerce to drive growth in online retail sales as consumers seek out convenient ways to shop. Voice assistants are likely to be used more for research than for purchase and will complement shoppers’ use of other channels this back-to-school season.

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