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A quick-fire guide to Back to School student spending

woman with shopping bags

It’s time to start thinking about the Back to School shopping. Explore how your brand can get in on the action with our top tips and student insights. 

During their college years, students develop loyalties to brands that will last their entire lives. It’s a short window to make an impression – but it starts earlier than you think. As soon as students know their college place is guaranteed, they’ll start to build their own shopping habits and develop an affinity for brands. So, let’s explore how and when students will be spending for this year’s Back to School season – to help your brand win Gen Z’s loyalty ahead of the next academic year.

When are students buying?

Despite the disruption of COVID-19, there were only marginal differences in when 2020’s Freshmen started their Back to School shopping compared to their predecessors. In fact, many students who shopped in 2020 opted to kickstart their shopping in the early months of summer – June and July were more popular starting months than in 2019, however the majority of students (34%) did most of their shopping in August last year.

“I bought a few paper items like a calendar, planner, a whiteboard calendar, and other desk items to hold my stapler, paper clips, binder clips, note cards, binders – everything that you’d need for school like binders and such. I also got a few accessories like lamps, some wall art, a rug, a mirror, and other stuff like that to decorate my dorm with”Margaret, current nursing student.

To make a crucial first impression on the next wave of freshmen, start planting seeds before they even arrive on campus. Whether they’re opting for ecommerce or heading in store (82% mix both methods), students will be heading into uncharted waters and discovering brands for the first time. Make sure yours is one of them.

What are students buying?

Of course, exactly when students spend within your vertical will depend on how your products fit into their college experience – but students like to be prepared. They’re more likely to shop in advance across almost every vertical, and they’re significantly more likely to buy tech, health, and beauty products before arriving at college. Notable – and perhaps predictable – exceptions include food, drink, and eating out.

12% of a student’s monthly spend goes towards fashion items, and 66% of students like to buy clothes and accessories for Back to School before college starts. For some students, fashion will be high on the agenda. In total, 71% of the new students we surveyed expect to move into a new home when they start college, with 41% intending to move to a whole new state or country. Moving to a new state or country could mean moving to a whole new climate, which means a whole new wardrobe is on the cards.

Rack of clothes in a shop window

Homewares is likely to have slipped below the radar for students up until now, but with 71% planning to move away from home, furnishing their space is an exciting new challenge. 60% of the students we surveyed bought bedding before or during Back to School season, 50% bought towels, and 47% bought wall decorations like posters and photo prints. Other items on students’ lists included candles, rugs, and lights. At the top of this shopping list, we see a mix of practical and fun – make sure your product offering reflects this.

“I’ve already made pin boards and Amazon boards of stuff I’m going to need. I want nice stuff that’s not going to break like pens, notebooks, and a journal. I also want decorations that are helpful to my studies – little extra things for my desk that can help me, because ultimately my focus is going to have to be my studies” Rachel, future fashion merchandising student.


Of course, Back to School 2021 will bring with it new experiences – and new spending habits to go with it. We expect that at least some learning will still be remote this August, which will in turn affect student spending. Last year, 42% of college students had a mix of online and in-person classes. These students were more likely to have purchased across all verticals ahead of time.

For the 42% of students whose college experiences were totally remote last year, spending before college started was less of a priority – but once it started, 38% spent money on tech and mobile compared to 22% who had in-person classes. This shows that those who were fully remote took the opportunity to upgrade their tech setup – and makes a strong case for tech and mobile to continue their student marketing efforts throughout the first semester.

After grappling with a pandemic, students are looking to brands to make this year’s Back to School season really count. Brands of all sectors have a chance to win with the next generation of consumers – don’t miss out!

Are you ready to make that crucial first impression on this year’s new and returning class of college students? Get everything you need by visiting our Back to School Hub today.

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