Smartphones Fueling Online Back-to-School Shopping

Survey shows internet retailers taking a growing piece of the $28 billion market
A mother and son back to school shopping

While most consumers still do their back-to-school shopping in stores, a growing number are crossing off the purchase items on their lists online, with smartphone shopping leading the charge, new research shows.

Families preparing for the upcoming school year are expected to spend $27.8 billion this season on their elementary, junior-high and high-school students, according to this year’s “Back-to-School Survey” from audit and advisory services firm Deloitte. The survey, conducted between May 31 and June 6, was distributed to 1,200 parents with at least one child in grades K-12.

A majority of respondents (56%) will be heading to the malls and shopping outlets, but others won’t have to leave their homes to get their shopping done, with online retailers expected to nab 29% of back-to-school spending dollars, up from 23% last year.

In the past, online shoppers typically used their laptops and desktop computers to buy what they needed, but the survey showed that consumers are increasingly dependent on smartphones to guide them through the shopping season.

The use of personal computers or PCs for back-to-school shopping (whether for actual purchases or just to look up products and prices) fell to 42% this year, down from 49% in 2018. On the flip side, 60% of respondents said they would utilize their smartphones during the shopping season, with 54% using the device to visit a retailer’s website, 51% getting price information, and 51% looking for discounts or promotions.

Mass merchant stores (as opposed to online sellers, discounters and stores specializing in a single product category) are expected to get the most back-to-school shopping business, with a massive 88% of respondents saying they planned to shop in one this season. The study named internet retailers as the second-most popular shopping destination (45%), outpacing dollar stores (36%), which had held the survey’s No. 2 spot for the past two years.

When asked why they shopped where they did, 88% of respondents named price as the biggest factor. In fact, 69% said sales and discounts helped determine where they shopped, and 57% said competitive prices were among the most important criteria. Convenience was also critical, with 80% describing it as a key consideration.

Consumers are expected to average $519 in spending per student this year, according to the survey, with clothing and accessories accounting for 54% of back-to-school spending. School supplies are projected to comprise 22% of back-to-school budgets, followed by electronic gadgets (13%) and computers and hardware (11%). However, spending on electronic devices is increasing and is forecast to hit $800 million this year — 29% more than what consumers spent on such gadgets in 2018.

The survey also estimated back-to-school shopping would peak in late June or early August, with that period making up 62% of total spending for the season. Meanwhile, those who wait until the immediate two weeks before school starts were expected to spend $370 more per student than the average consumer.

School supplies can throw a major monkey wrench in your budget if you don’t plan for them. Since there are certain items that you’ll need year after year, you can do a little research beforehand to discover the least expensive places to buy basic supplies. Also, the sooner you shop, the more you can take advantage of special sales events earlier in the year, such as Amazon Prime Day, which could offer discounts on electronics, clothing and other items.

Tamara E. Holmes

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, DC-based writer who covers personal finance, entrepreneurship and careers.

Comments and Questions