back-to-college shopping is well underway as the semester quickly approaches. Are your marketing strategies for college shoppers ready?

In a recent survey on eMarketer, it was discovered that 75% of back-to-college shoppers won’t start their college shopping until at least a month before school starts, and 34% wait until the two weeks before heading to campus before shopping for their college essentials. Back to college shopping is part of the long and lucrative back to school shopping period, but despite the overlap, these are two very different types of shopping goals. Back to college spending is expected to reach $55.3 billion dollars according to the National Retail Federation, which is higher than ever before.

Marketers who think it’s too late to get the attention of back to college shoppers should take a second look: there is still more than enough opportunity to win college shoppers this back to college season. In order to do so, however, marketers must understand how to reach these shoppers, as well as what they’re looking for. In this detailed report, we take a look at both Rakuten Marketing data trends as well as third-party trends identified by eMarketer, the NRF, and Deloitte to provide a holistic picture of what the back to college shopper is looking for, and how they can best be reached.

Understanding the Back to College Shopper (AKA Gen Z)

Marketers looking to reach back-to-college shoppers must first understand who they are and what they’re looking for. While we’ve detailed several key behaviors in last year’s examination of Gen Z college student traits and earlier this year with a look at Gen Z shopping behaviors and preferences, understanding how these align with the college shopping frenzy matters.

To optimize college marketing strategies to better target college shopping preferences and behaviors, marketers can do the following:

  • Think about the purpose, not the product: Gen Z students are looking for more than just a product – they want something with purpose. For back-to-college shopping, this could mean looking for brands that do good (such as donate a portion of every purchase to a charity) or buying something that serves as more than just a utility. Highlight the purpose behind your product and your brand – rather than just focus on what the product can do.
  • Right place, right time: Are you trying to sell something to a college student that they’ve already bought, or aren’t interested in buying at that point? A lot of successful marketing strategies revolves around making sure you’re in the right place at the right time for the shopper’s needs to be met, but this can be challenging if you don’t know what exactly the shopper is looking for. While there’s no 100% approximation of what every single college student is looking to buy every day from mid-June through October, there are trends that have been demonstrated that can help act as guides for marketers who are looking to make their marketing a little bit savvier and informed. For more information on that, see our section on vertical trends below.
  • In-store value: Today’s Gen Z college shopper loves in-store shopping. To these consumers who grew up with the internet and online shopping, going to a mall or in a store is like a digital marketplace brought to life. College students aren’t the only ones heading into stores this shopping season: Deloitte research has found that parents of college students are utilizing in-store shopping more. In-store shopping for parents is expected to rise up to 54% of their total purchases, up from 49% last year. If you’re a brand with a brick and mortar location, consider in-store promotions as well as online ones to help compel these shoppers. And if you’re able to offer “buy online, in-store pickup” purchases – do so.

College Shopping, Spending Behaviors

Deloitte research in back-to-college shopping found that parents plan on spending an average of $1,330 on their college student, which equates to roughly $25.5 billion dollars for the back-to-college season. Additionally, 22% of that budget is “unclaimed” according to Deloitte, as shoppers are undecided about where or how they plan to spend their money.

This $5.6 billion dollars of uncertainty is a huge opportunity for marketers…if they know the right categories to target and the audience to reach.

When marketing back-to-college products, there are two audiences that every marketer should be considering: parents and students. Parents are likely to have a bigger budget and the freedom to spend more. However, the decision-making autonomy belongs to the student, who will inform the parent what they’re looking for so the parent can make the right purchase. The student will also be spending his or her own money, with some categories being almost as much as the parent would spend on them.

back-to-college shoppers tend to gravitate to spending the most on computer electronics

The three biggest spend categories for students and parents are computers, college supplies, and electronics/digital subscriptions, according to eMarketer. Parents and students alike will invest the most in computers and hardware since many college students will need new tech for both educational and social purposes. College supplies are another heavy spend because it can encompass the cost of textbooks, which can get extremely expensive fast. The most interesting of the top three includes electronics and digital subscriptions, which could range in a number of products. This could include items like calculators and cell phones, as well as subscriptions for academic software or entertainment such as video and music streaming services.

One of the biggest areas that marketers should not miss targeting is dorm furniture and appliances. Different colleges will have different rules based on the type of dorm a student lives in, but all students will need an array of furniture and appliances to improve their dorm life. The spend is slightly less on this, but it’s a category of products that focus more on college and, therefore, can have college-specific campaigns and messages built.

When Are College Shoppers Buying Certain Products?

Knowing what college students (and parents) are buying, as well as how much they’re spending, is only two-thirds of the foundation that marketers need to have to build an effective campaign. Marketers looking to deploy a marketing effort at this point in the back-to-college shopping season need to know when certain products or product verticals are being purchased.

To better identify this, we examined some trends in the Rakuten Marketing affiliate network from the 2017 back-to-school and back-to-college shopping season.

2017 back to college shopping trends

Above are some of the key verticals during the back-to-school and back-to-college shopping season, highlighted by when they became more active in a week (red), stayed about what they normally would sell (green), or slowed down (blue). Key takeaways from this data for the month of August include:

  • Key verticals that “got hot” included footwear, food and drink, office products, and consumer electronics.
  • Apparel is an exception because, although only going “red” once, it is actually one of the highest purchased verticals week-over-week, thus their average is much higher – as is the ability to “get hot” when compared to other verticals.
  • This tells us a few key things about college shoppers. First is that their clothes are key for this time of year as they want to have a full, refreshed wardrobe when they arrive or return to campus.knowing when college students are likely to make back-to-college purchases is just as critical as knowing what verticals they shop in.
  • Next, this indicates that college shoppers will be stocking up on food to keep in their dorm room or apartment, returning to campus with a full fridge.
  • Finally, office products and consumers electronics got hot during the month of August before dropping off in late August in the case of electronics.
  • Considering how much work goes into finding a computer or laptop that meets the requirements of a student, it could be that this picked up in early August because they completed research on what computer they’d need and decided to make the purchase.
  • Other factors such as sales and tax-free days in certain states could also have played a role.
  • This cooled off towards the end of August as students finished up purchases and returned back to campus.

College shopping continues into September and early October, with education products (such as textbooks) staying hot through the fall. That comes as no surprise since many college students will be buying textbooks for classes as they get their syllabi, and some holding off until later in the semester to make sure the textbooks will actually be used in class. Apparel continues to remain consistent, while consumer electronics and office supplies take a dip.

Marketers who are looking to enhance their strategies or change up what they’re already doing to stand out from their competitors should be considering what’s trending during this time and employ strategies that will help drive awareness and sales to their products and brands.