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This back-to-school season, great experiences will earn high marks

Back-to-school shopping trends look promising.

The back-to-school shopping rush is a time of opportunity for brick-and-mortar retailers, marking the start of the most lucrative time of year for many.

It’s the first in a series of annual consumer traditions that can set the tone for the parade of holidays in the second half of the year. However, after years of shifting trends, retailers may feel unsure of what to expect.

Sensormatic Solutions by Johnson Controls recently conducted its annual back-to-school consumer survey to better understand what’s on shoppers’ minds as we enter this critical period as well as what it tells us about the coming holiday rush. And, this year, the outlook is incredibly promising for retailers that curate exceptional experiences.

How they’ll shop

The annual tradition of browsing aisles for bookbags, calculators, new shoes, and more is deeply rooted in the hearts of American consumers, and they’re continuing to opt for in-store experiences to prepare for the upcoming school year. The survey found that 79% of respondents plan to do their shopping in person, an increase from the past two years (76%).

However, this number is unlikely to represent the full popularity of in-store shopping for school supplies as 61% of people who said they use alternative fulfillment methods like “buy online, pick up in store” (BOPIS) said they buy additional items during their trips. That’s a significant increase from the 54% who did so in 2022.

Also of note is the power of compelling in-store displays for today’s consumers. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of consumers said they’re looking to eye-catching, in-store displays to inform them about new products—a 10% increase from last year. When they do make those purchases during the back-to-school season, they’re most likely to reach for apparel (70%), shoes (58%) and school supplies (53%), continuing a three-year trend for the product categories on which shoppers expect to spend the most.

When they’ll shop

As usual, most customers (80%) said they planned to begin their school shopping in July or August, so the season has only just begun for many retailers in the U.S. Stores still have time to capture back-to-school sales in every region, with the Sensormatic Solutions traffic data indicating that the peak shopping periods will be from:

  • July 30 to Aug. 5 in the South.
  • July 30 to Aug. 12 in the West.
  • Aug. 6 to 19 in the Midwest.
  • Aug. 20 to 26 in the Northeast.

As for specific days, the data indicates that traffic is likely to be steady throughout the week. Respondents showed no clear preference for any specific timing with 35% preferring weekdays (Monday-Thursday), 32% preferring weekends (Friday-Sunday), and the remaining third (33%) having no preference.

Where they’ll shop

Shoppers’ financial concerns appear to be waning with fewer respondents saying the economy’s effect will impact their budgets this summer than last year. More than half (51%) of respondents said their budgets would not be impacted by the economy or that they will spend more this year than last, up from 43% in 2022—a great sign for back-to-school and holiday shopping alike.

Even so, price remains a top motivator for shoppers, with 91% saying it’s the most important factor they will consider when making purchases this year. Shoppers shared that they are more likely to prioritize stores with tempting sales and promotions this year, with 30% of respondents citing in-store promotions as an important factor in their choices compared to 24% in 2022 and 16% in 2021.

Preferences related to types of establishments have held steady since 2022, with nearly half (45%) of respondents sharing that they are most likely to visit free-standing retail locations or stores in strip malls. Similarly, the proportion of people who prefer open-air shopping centers (20%) and enclosed malls (19%) haven’t changed meaningfully from last year (24% and 19%, respectively in 2022).

From in-store to in your store

Despite these positive findings, capturing sales this back-to-school season isn’t a given. It’s great that shoppers are opting to purchase these items in stores, but retailers will still want to focus deliver satisfying experiences to get shoppers into their stores. Given modern shoppers’ focus on convenience and personalization, offering experiences that are informed by location- and enterprise-level data about shopper demographics, traffic patterns, and more will be critical in the second half of 2023.

Luckily, many retailers already have the tools to support these improvements on hand. They can bolster systems they already have, like in-store video monitoring, electronic article surveillance, and traffic counting, with emerging technologies that can help retailers dive deep into what their customers really want.

Advanced technologies like AI-enabled computer vision, radio-frequency identification tags, and tailored modeling software can supercharge legacy tools to help retailers make the most of the opportunities back-to-school shopping presents and prepare for the holiday rush that’s sure to follow.




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