Back-To-School Season Fuels Retail Activity And Innovation

student on campus

You can probably tell by the happy looks on all the children’s faces, but in case not — back-to-school season is upon us. Not only is it a big time for retail but, in a sense, a kind of dress rehearsal for the upcoming all all-important holiday shopping season.

Retail back-to-school spending for families will hit an average of $696.70 this year, up from $684.79 last year, according to the National Retail Federation, a trade group. “Families with college students are expected to spend an average $976.78, which is up from last year’s $942.17,” it said. Even so, the trade group said that “with fewer families surveyed saying they have children in grades K-12, spending is expected to total $26.2 billion, down from last year’s $27.5 billion despite the increase in per-household spending.”

Amazon Effort

Retailers have put in place their own programs to capture that spending — and that includes the bigger spend promised by college students and their parents.

Take one of the most recent examples, from Amazon. It has long been a significant presence in the lives of many college students, and that trend is sure to grow even more in the coming months and years. The eCommerce operator recently announced that it is launching its Off-to-College store, geared toward college students and all of their shopping needs — be it furnishing a dorm room or purchasing class supplies.

The store is available on both desktop and the Amazon app, and Amazon teamed up with Ava Phillippe, daughter of actress Reese Witherspoon, to share some of her dorm room favorites. Users can shop directly from Ava’s list or from “college influencer-curated style guides, including earthy artsy, casual throwback, modern minimal and eclectic chic,” Amazon said. What’s more, Amazon Prime Student members will get special perks when they use the store.

College is also a notable location for the rise of other retail innovation — including technology that is changing the quick-service restaurant (QSR) word, mobile order-ahead. As PYMNTS research has demonstrated, mobile order-ahead offerings are increasing, showing up on college campuses like a cool new student that everyone wants to know — and where dining operators compete to win the business of busy students and visiting families.

Program Challenges

That can present a relatively tricky challenge for both retail and payments, given the meal plans college students are on, and their often limited funds and payment options. Providing that mobile order-ahead means providing an app that can easily handle meal plans and credit card payments and keep it all secure, according to John Diaz, vice president of retail solutions product management for education technology firm Blackboard. The effort to get that right on college campuses involves tokening credit card payments and providing seamless sign-in services.

Another hot retail trend that is also being honed on campuses is subscription retail.

After all, the search for inexpensive college textbooks can overwhelm students juggling tuition, food and housing costs. The prices that students must often pay at college bookstores for their required, limited-circulation reading materials often force them to obtain the books through questionable means — if they bother to get them at all.

That leaves an opening for subscription commerce.

Subscriptions could eliminate some of these price frustrations, as they have in other areas of the education space with online platforms like Coursera and That’s what Cengage is attempting with its new subscription service, Cengage Unlimited. The service, available per semester or for the year, gives students access to a digital textbook archive at a much lower price than paying for physical books at the college bookstore.

Todd Markson, chief strategy officer for Cengage, told PYMNTS that a focus on “affordability and access” prompted the launch of Unlimited in August. The company also wanted to fill a void for students who avoided buying expensive course material by appealing to those who used sources such as online torrents. “Students have had to make tough choices when presented with their course material,” Markson said. “We’ve been really focused on affordability.”

The students are leaving for classes, and that means big opportunity for retailers.



The September 2020 Leveraging The Digital Banking Shift Study, PYMNTS examines consumers’ growing use of online and mobile tools to open and manage accounts as well as the factors that are paramount in building and maintaining trust in the current economic environment. The report is based on a survey of nearly 2,200 account-holding U.S. consumers.