3 Reasons Why Brick-and-Mortar Owned Back-to-School Shopping

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Brick-and-mortar retail has been taking its lumps in recent years. Sales are down. Companies have filed for bankruptcy. Hundreds of stores are closing. Many predictors of doom and gloom have said Amazon is taking over the world and it’s just a matter of time before online shopping takes over and in-store shopping dies a slow death.

Of course, such predictions of the demise of brick-and-mortar retail are grossly exaggerated with little data to back them up. Case in point: back-to-school shopping.

InfoScout’s proprietary mobile apps captured physical and digital receipt images of customer purchase data from back-to-school shopping occasions. We also conducted a survey of 449 back-to-school shoppers to gain even deeper insights into shopper behaviors and motivations.

This data shows that the number of shopping trips for back-to-school supplies spikes in July and peaks in August. Brick-and-mortar retail stores are the primary beneficiaries of this bump – and it wasn’t even close.

In fact, three quarters of July and August shopping trips for back-to-school supplies went to the brick-and-mortar stores of mass retailers, compared to under 5% for online shopping channels. This is a huge win for in-store shopping during the back-to-school season.

So how did mass brick-and-mortar retailers score such a decisive victory when online supposedly had all of the momentum? Here’s what the data tells us.

1) It’s Not Just About School Supplies

70% of brick-and-mortar shoppers were looking for more than school supplies. They prefer to pick up back-to-school supplies as part of a larger shopping trip. This translated to trip dollars that were nearly 50% higher than online purchases.

2) Back-to-School Shoppers Sniff Out Deals

50% of in-store shoppers visited multiple retailers. When asked why, the top seven responses involved finding the best prices and deals. While online shoppers valued the convenience of shopping when they wanted (75%) and having products shipped directly to their homes (79%), in-store shoppers looked for the best prices and were willing to comparison shop to find them.

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3) Brick-and-Mortar Raised the Customer Experience Bar

When asked what they appreciated about the in-store shopping experience, shoppers pointed to the ability to shop for more than back-to-school items (58%) and low prices on back-to-school items (57%). Tax-free weekends were appreciated by 17% of respondents. But the experience wasn’t all about pricing and sales.

Having a dedicated, organized section for back-to-school supplies is a plus for 49% of in-store shoppers. 47% call out the selection and availability of school supplies, while 20% appreciate that the supply lists from specific schools are available in stores.

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Can Brick-and-Mortar Retailers Continue this Momentum into the Holidays?

The back-to-school shopping season demonstrates that brick-and-mortar retailers can win with low prices, dedicated back-to-school sections, effective merchandising, and well-stocked shelves. Can this approach be applied to the holiday season to slow or even stop sales losses to online channels?

For example, online channels offer the advantage of the infinite aisle. If a holiday shopper in the store is looking for a product that’s unavailable, will the retailer be willing to have that product shipped directly to the customer? While most retailers offer holiday sections for decorations, will they create special sections for gift categories, such as stocking stuffers?

Brick-and-mortar stores capitalized on the fact that back-to-school supply shopping is part of a larger shopping trip. What kinds of promotions or incentives can be offered to capitalize on this advantage during the holiday season and get more people into stores? Can stores that make  school supply lists available also support gift wish lists?

Clearly, doomsday predictions for brick-and-mortar retail stores are premature. Online can be beaten with the right combination of pricing, product availability, merchandising and marketing. The proof is in the data. Now it’s up to retailers to apply these techniques to the holiday season and beyond.