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Back to School Shopping with Gen Z Students

It is an American tradition, as common as baseball and apple pie, graduations in June, and summer family outings at a beach. The migration back to school  (BTS) for millions of students is underway. While each locale initiates the migration on different days and weeks, most students begin to navigate to classrooms beginning in early August through the day just after the Labor Day Holiday in early September.  BTS evokes nostalgia, tradition, and a time of transition for students of all ages and has become the most important shopping opportunity for some retailers. The National Federation of Retailers (NFR) is predicting that Americans will spend $41.5 billion this year for K-12 BTS supplies, an increase of 12 percent over 2022 levels. Spending for college-age students is forecast to exceed $94 billion this year. But the NFR’s rosy forecast is not shared by all prognosticators.

The Deloitte 2023 Back to School Survey indicates that “parents—across all three income groups—plan to spend less this year, with total spend dropping 10% year over year (YoY). The focus is on replenishing the necessities, such as school supplies, while holding off on nonessential purchases like tech and apparel.” Shoppers continually suffer from inflation fatigue and are more strategic about BTS budgets. Deloitte predicts that parents will spend 10 percent less this year due to families having less disposable income.

While there is considerable disagreement about this year’s BTS sales predictions, brick-and-mortar retailers will be the biggest winners for BTS shopping and are adapting and optimizing the in-person shopping experience and implementing technologies to meet changing consumer desires. After a decade of predicted demise, it appears as though the physical retail experience is alive and well as parents appear to favor the in-store experience over online retailers. The annual Back-to-School survey by Sensormatic Solutions found that ”79% of consumers plan to do their back-to-school shopping in stores this year, up from 76% in 2022 and 2021.”

While nostalgia plays an influential role in BTS shopping, retailers need to realize that the experience is not an apple for the teacher and new pencil boxes. Generation Z consists of students who are 10 to 20 years old this year and most of them wouldn’t recognize a pencil box or the need to take the new teacher an apple. This newest generation tends to perform pre-shopping online before they set out for the nearest physical retail outlet to make a purchase. For BTS marketing, selecting the right social media site is critical for engaging the audience.

TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram are where this generation is listening. Having an idea as to what the students and parents are looking for in school supplies and what brands are most popular with both shoppers will save time and money for sellers. Parents are key influencers when it comes to BTS, so do not overplay the importance of a student’s impact on the buying decision.

The most successful strategies will include choosing the right products and brands, forming partnerships with Generation Z influencers, and recognizing TikTok trends. Run special discounts and free giveaways for loyal customers. Use hashtags in all digital marketing campaigns and coordinate both digital and physical storefronts. Focus equally on selling a lifestyle as well as the product’s features and benefits. Just like generations of the past, “being cool” or “rad” is still a desire for the Z generation. Be customer-centric and strive to provide a personal and fluid shopping experience from discovery to conversion. And it may be relevant to remind students to “respect us parents, we graduated without having Google, the internet, smartphones, and electronic devices!”