Back-To-School Shopping Starts Increasingly Early. Can Consumers And Retailers Avoid Being Left Back?

Attain data points to gains in the spending for big-box stores by the third week of August — but for many retailers, that may be too late

At the end of June, summer vacation is the last thing on the minds of many parents and students. Even before the finals are graded, the back-to-school shopping season is in full gear.

For retailers, the pressure to capture early-bird shoppers planning for next fall’s grade school and college sessions is increasingly intense — especially as consumers of all kinds look for deals.

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), as of early June,  one in five consumers (22%) have already started their shopping for the ‘24/’25 school year.  

That analysis is borne out by survey data from Attain, which found a significant 26% of consumers plan to start their shopping earlier. And despite continued inflationary pressures, 16% of participants in Attain’s real-time consumer panel survey say they anticipate spending more on back-to-school items. 

Capturing the early-bird shoppers appears crucial, as Attain’s findings show that just 15% of consumers expect to shop closer to the start of school, and another 15% plan to spend less, indicating a mixed outlook.

“Over the last several years, we have seen a trend toward early shopping when it comes to major spending events like back-to-school or the winter holidays,” Katherine Cullen VP, Industry and Consumer Insights at the NRF, told The Outcome. “Some of this was initially spurred by the desire to get ahead of supply chain delays during the pandemic, but consumers have continued to get a head start on their shopping for these occasions because they like to spread out their budget or because the deals are too good to pass up.”

Retailers have responded to consumers’ interest in shopping early by previewing deals and promotions on back-to-school items throughout the summer, Cullen added. While retailers’ deals will depend on their individual businesses and consumers, typically shoppers look for big-ticket items like electronics earlier in the season and may save items like clothing or school supplies until later in the summer.

“However, it is important to remember that, unlike other consumer holidays, the first day of school can vary dramatically across the country, which also leads to different timelines for shopping,” Cullen said.

Breaking down Back-to-School Shopping

Attain compared average transaction amounts between July 1 and September 15  for the years 2022 to 2023 across Big-Box Stores, Department Stores, and Discount Stores to pin-point who these shoppers are and where they are making their purchases.

“Interestingly, we can see that big-box stores see a rise in the amount spent at the end of July and early August, which indicates consumers may be stocking up on traditional supplies, early in their shopping journey,” said Madi Bradford, manager of Data Strategy, Measurement & Insights at Attain.  “We also see an increase in the amount spent for big-box stores in the third week of August — which may signify that buyers are purchasing last minute items before school starts.”

At department stores, spending remained the same throughout July and early August last year, with a spike in the third week of August, indicating that the back to school shopping journey for retail items like new clothes or home goods (for college students) is fairly consistent throughout back to school season, with a final push later in the summer.

Big-Box Retailers and Department Stores See Gains

Overall, consumer spending at big-box stores saw a significant increase from late July to early August last year, Attain’s commerce data shows, with total spending in this category rising by 9%, with average transaction amounts rising by 3%. The frequency of shopping trips to big box retailers also increased by 4%.

Walmart, Target, and Amazon were the leading big-box retailers, with Walmart capturing 65% of the total spend, among the three major retailers. Walmart also had the highest average transaction amount ($54.28) and purchase frequency (7.8 times).

In comparison, shopping at department stores remained steady throughout the same back-to-school period. But there were notable differences between when consumers visited department stores versus big boxes. The third week of August 2023 saw consumers purchase more department store items like clothing and home goods closer to the start of the school year.

Perhaps as a result of the latter part of the season’s spending, when discounts are more likely to be offered, total spending at department stores was up 4%, while the average transaction amount decreased by 1%. However, purchase frequency saw a 2% increase.

Top brands in the department store category last year included TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Burlington, Kohl’s, and Macy’s. TJ Maxx led in purchase frequency, while Macy’s had the highest average transaction amount ($69.89), suggesting that premium items can still open budget-conscious shoppers wallets.

Given that these trends have become firmly established in the shopping habits of Millennials and Gen-Zers, it’s clear that ecommerce will continue  to surge, even enhancing the convenience and tactile experience of in-store discovery and purchasing decisions through the current and 2025 back-to-school seasons. 

According to Attain’s survey data, 57% of consumers plan to complete their back-to-school shopping online, while 43% prefer in-store purchases. This split necessitates a robust omnichannel strategy for retailers to effectively capture the full spectrum of consumer preferences.

As competition intensifies, retailers are leveraging various tools to attract back-to-school shoppers. The report highlights that 30% of consumers use online deal websites like Rakuten and RetailMeNot to find discounts, while 24% rely on coupons. Store apps and in-store promotions also play significant roles, demonstrating the importance of a multi-faceted approach to marketing.

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