Back-to-School Shopping Is Going Mobile

August marks the waning days of summer—and Back to School shopping season. I feel like I’ve barely put away my son’s backpack and it’s now time to load up on school supplies. In fact, retailers start nudging consumers right around Independence Day, when the big box and home goods stores like Bed Bath & Beyond whisk away the sparklers and grilling tools to make room for notebooks and dorm room décor. Retailers who start the Back to School blitz too early risk alienating consumers already weary of “holiday creep.”

According to Advertising Age, the back-to-school and college shopping season is the second biggest for retailers after the holiday shopping season. How big? $72.5 billion in sales, by some estimates. That’s a lot of glue sticks.

From Smartphone to Shopping Cart

So where—and how—are parents and young consumers shopping for school gear? Are they hitting the brick-and-mortar stores, or relying on mobile apps? Well, both. The number of consumers using mobile for back to school shopping is on the rise: 78% of parents used smartphones for back-to-school shopping in 2013, compared to 65% in 2012.

This infographic by Baynote demonstrates how consumers engage with retailers and use multiple channels when shopping for school supplies. One takeaway: Parents (mostly moms) are using multiple channels, including mobile apps, to shop online, but actually make most of their purchases in the stores. It’s the inverse of showrooming, dubbed “webrooming”.

Parents—myself included—are using mobile apps in a variety of ways for school shopping: using smartphones to research specific items, doing in-store comparison shopping, and using an in-app shopping list, such as Target’s Cartwheel. There’s a huge opportunity for retailers to further engage mobile shoppers—offering customized shopping, mobile-only promotions, easier search and one-click purchase, for instance. (I’ll be curious to see what Walmart does with its personalized shopping experience.)

So while an increasing number of parents are using mobile apps in their back to school shopping, they’re still hitting the bricks—the brick and mortar, that is—to make their purchases. After all, there’s something undeniably sentimental about heading back to school, and the tangible reality of browsing then buying all those pristinely packaged notebooks, binders and desk supplies—a tactile, emotional experience any mobile app has yet to create.

The Baynote study reveals another interesting insight into back-to-school shopping behavior: Many parents shop for school supplies with their children. I can vouch for this: My son loathes going into the store with me for even the quickest jaunt, but is eager to go shopping and pick out school gear. Our back-to-school shopping trip has become an annual ritual, and a unique and surprisingly fun way for us to spend some time together.

Targeting Teen Shoppers

Understanding that kids—particularly teens and Millenials—are invested in back-to-school shopping, some retailers and specific brands are engaging these young consumers in creative ways.

Teaming up with alt rock group R5, Office Depot launched a mobile app that features augmented reality as part of its Gotta Get INSPIR5D campaign—shoppers use the app to appear with the band, then share their photos and videos on Facebook. (Last year, Office Depot partnered with One Direction on an augmented reality–based mobile app that also featured an anti-bullying message.) And in 2012, Sharpie embarked on a successful Back to School campaign targeted at teens—using the highly visual platforms of YouTube and Instagram, along with Facebook and Twitter to encourage users to share their creativity with and create content using Sharpie products.

Of course, fashion continues to be a huge component of the larger back-to-school shopping scene. Teen Vogue is getting style-conscious shoppers in the mall and on their smartphones with Back to School Saturday (#BTSS). What started as a national shopping day in 2012 has evolved into a month-long shopping holiday with fashion shows hosted by guest editors and celebs. A feature-rich online hub, an Insider app with videos, tap-to-buy look books, Instagram integration, and interactive Teen Vogue editorial features create buzz around this epic event.

Socially Sentimental

As a mobile shopping experience becomes a likely scenario and my son gets older and more digital and social savvy, back-to-school shopping may lose some of its sentimental appeal. But for now, we’ll hit the stores together, smartphone in my hand, and share a good time loading up on gear for the school year ahead.

How are you using mobile apps to streamline your back to school shopping experience?

By Callie Fromson

Keep reading in Strategy