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Survey Shows Back to School Shopping Still Mostly Happens in the Store

A Fatherly survey shows that the second-largest shopping season still primarily occurs off-line.

The following was produced in partnership with Staples, the back to school specialty store. 

Back to school shopping is a big deal. A consumer event on par with Christmas (this is the second-largest seasonal shopping period of the year in terms of consumer spending), preparing for the coming school year is about far more than buying pencils and notebooks. It’s a chance to spend some quality time with your kids, to help them prepare for the next chapter in their education, and, sure, to go store to store until you find that unicorn emoji backpack they’ve been clamoring for all summer. “My favorite part of back to school shopping is seeing how my child changed from last year and seeing their individuality take shape,” writes one parent from Spokane, Washington who participated in the Back to School Shopping Experience Survey conducted by Fatherly and Staples. “I like knowing that I am making my kids feel good about the upcoming year,” wrote another participant, from Garfield, Arkansas.

To get a better sense of what exactly the back to school shopping experience looks like for families, we surveyed parents across the country about how they shop, where they shop, and what they shop. Here’s what we found.

Parents Prefer to Shop In a Store

Despite the convenience of online shopping, parents let their search for the lowest prices and opportunities to include their children in the process of shopping lead them to their local supply stores.

Back to school shopping might be something of a hold-out in a world in which an ever-increasing amount of shopping is done online. Eighty-five percent of the parents surveyed prefer to go back to school shopping in-store because they feel they can find what they need at a more competitive price and interact with the products (while avoiding the dreaded late shipping fail the first week of school). Nearly half of parents reported that they prefer going shopping in-store because it’s more convenient than trying to harvest a list’s worth of supplies from the Internet.

Online shoppers and in-store shoppers tout similar reasons for choosing to shop the way they do. Parents who choose to shop in stores do so because they find it more convenient (47%) and feel they’re able to better compare prices (53%) — which is directly in line with what parents who shop online feel is more convenient (71%) and going to get them the better price (24%) on the web. One standout that may make parents more comfortable with in-store shopping is the ability to interact with products — something no amount of customer reviews can compensate for during online shopping.

What Parents Actually Buy

There’s good reason the back to school staples (pencils, folders, and notebooks) are at the top of the list for most parents — they’re on the teacher’s list of recommendations. According to our survey results, parents feel that the three most important factors for what you put your money towards are buying what’s on the teacher’s list (18%), sticking to your budget (18%), and having high-quality products (17%). Nearly 60 percent of parents we surveyed value the recommendations of teachers and schools above price point when it comes to getting the best stuff in your little student’s book bag. That’s a lot of faith put in the school’s list.

What parents are motivated to buy is a different story than why they’re motivated. When we asked parents what they want most out of their back to school shopping experience, 57 percent of respondents said they want back to school shopping to be as efficient and quick as possible. That’s likely why nearly 70 percent of parents rely on that endless list of essentials to prep their kids for the upcoming school year, while less than 15 percent of parents make up their own back to school shopping list. Because really, who wants to create the extra work of making a list for themselves?

The Back to School Shopping Experience

After shopping, nearly 68 percent of parents take the whole family to another activity together — because if you have the opportunity to make shopping a special bonding experience, why wouldn’t you? Of the families that go on to the next activity after shopping is complete, over 90 percent choose to take their kids to lunch. Other families take the kids to museums or other local attractions to finish out the day in a special way.

But lots of parents also want to make shopping special for their kids — so the sentiment isn’t just about grabbing lunch after. “My kids are active participants when we shop,” wrote one parent from New York. More than 90 percent of parents said that they allow their kids to get involved in the aisles by reading the list and picking out their favorite colors and designs for the supplies they need.

The Takeaway

With a list to guide you, your family all together to make shopping special, and the options to save money and get what you need in your local store, the must-do task of back to school shopping doesn’t have to be taxing or tense. This survey found that parents have the power to make shopping choices that take the stress out of an obligation and bring in a little efficiency during back to school shopping. Whether it’s letting your kid pick out their backpack or getting out of the stores ASAP so you can squeeze the last little bit of summer out of August, if you can find the right school supplies, you can find the fun.