Back To School: Then Vs. Now

August 23, 2012

I’m from a small town in the middle of nowhere. Western Minnesota, eight miles from the South Dakota border, population: 1,800.

Back in the ‘80s, around this time of year, my mom would pack my brother and me into the backseat of the family sedan and make the 90-minute pilgrimage to the big city… Sioux Falls, S.D. It was a day filled with shopping delights that inevitably turned into an all-too-familiar horror story of fights and loathing.

Back-to-school shopping was very different back then. My mom would take an inventory of everything we might need: shirts, jeans, jackets, shoes, socks, undies, No. 2 pencils, notepads, Trapper Keepers (hello?), backpack… the gamut. She’d scour the Sears and JC Penney catalogs. We’d hit the road, and you can bet that if a store at The Empire Mall had a sale sign in the window, we were there.

Fast forward to today and the back-to-school shopping experience is an entirely different animal. In what has become the second-most important selling season for many retailers, pulling out all the stops on sales and promotions is paramount. But needless to say, they simply aren’t as dependent on the family trip to the local mall any longer. A few interesting statistics:

  • In a study conducted by the National Retail Federation and BIGinsight, a full 40 percent of consumers will shop online. That’s up 50 percent from just five years ago.
  • Today, the shopping process isn’t limited to a day of hell in Sioux Falls (or elsewhere). Nearly one-third of online shoppers began their back-to-school shopping at least three weeks before the start of school.
  • The NRF also reports that half of those shopping online are shopping comparatively. So that race back and forth across the mall to find the best deals – kids in tow – truly is turning into a thing of the past.
  • And Mama Fransen would’ve loved this: over half of the parents surveyed by the NRF will research products, compare prices, redeem coupons and actually buy items using their smartphones.

As shopping trends continue to evolve, it will be interesting to see how much online and smartphone shopping affects the brick and mortar experience.

But Mama Fransen can take heart… her old faves like Penney’s and Sears may just survive a while longer. While the NRF’s stats point to continued increases in consumers’ online spending, another set of facts tells a somewhat different story. Oddly, catalog shopping has tripled among college-age shoppers since 2003. Meanwhile, 60 percent of shoppers are hitting up chain department stores this year.