Back-to-School 2019 — Brick & Mortar Stores and TV Ads Are at the Head of the Class

It’s official — summer is drawing to a close. How do we know this? Yellow school buses are taking to the streets. Our TV screens are inundated with smiling children in love with their new backpacks. Lists of dorm room hacks are popping up all over social media. Yes, indeed, it is that time of year we call the back-to-school season. Want to know which school supplies are filling parents’ carts and how much they are spending? We did too, so we surveyed 1,000 US consumers who will be shopping for back-to-school items this year. Here’s hoping this post reads less like a textbook and more like one of those folded up notes passed from desk to desk.

Roll Call

First, let’s get to know our survey respondents. 75% are parents of a child attending pre-K through high school, 6% are the parent of a child attending college, and 19% are a college or graduate student themselves. Among the parents of children going to school/college, the majority (82%) have 1 or 2 children in school. Their children are attending the following schools: 29% – pre-K or kindergarten, 49% – elementary school, 35% – middle school or junior high school, 32%- high school, and 12% – college.

According to the parents of college students and the college students we surveyed, their year in college this fall will be:

  • 26% – freshmen
  • 19% – sophomore
  • 13% – junior
  • 11% – senior
  • 31% – graduate student

School’s In

Most of the back-to-school shoppers we surveyed like to get a headstart, with 58% saying they start their shopping before school begins. 35% shop both before and after school starts, while 6% are on the tardy list heading to the stores after school is already in session. Making shopping easier, many schools create lists of necessary supplies. 65% of our respondents said they use a school-provided list and find it helpful, 9% said they have a list from school but prefer to use their own, and 26% said there was no list provided. Along with purchasing supplies for their own children, some parents buy supplies that can be used by the whole class. 47% of our respondents plan to buy classroom items that can be shared.

Calculating Discounts

We asked consumers how they approach back-to-school shopping, and here is what they had to say:

  • 77% – try to get the best deals (coupons, sales, etc.)
  • 55% – necessity items only
  • 51% – stock up on clothes
  • 27% – purchase any electronics that may be needed
  • 2% – other

One way parents save on back-to-school items is taking advantage of their state’s tax-free weekend — a set day when sales tax is suspended on school necessities. 37% of respondents shopped or plan to shop during tax-free weekend. 33% said they are not taking advantage of a tax-free weekend, while 31% said their state does not offer one. Men and shoppers ages 25-34 were more likely to have shopped on tax-free weekend.

And what about the onslaught of back-to-school advertising? Are consumers paying attention and what media reaches them? We asked respondents if they had seen TV, print, social media, email, or billboard advertising for the top retailers. By far, TV ads were the most seen advertising type, followed by print ads. This table shows the most seen advertising types for each retailer.

Retailer#1 Media Seen#2 Media Seen
Amazon20% saw email ad20% saw social media ad
Best Buy19% saw TV ad15% saw print ad
Dick’s Sporting Goods14% saw TV ad9% saw print ad
JCPenney22% saw TV ad14% saw print ad
Kohl’s26% saw TV ad18% saw print ad
Macy’s18% saw TV ad11% saw print ad
Office Depot20% saw TV ad14% saw print ad
Staples21% saw TV ad16% saw print ad
Target35% saw TV ad27% saw print ad
Walgreens 17% saw print ad14% saw TV ad
Walmart35% saw TV ad28% saw print ad

Show and Tell and Spend

Parents checked their lists and noticed some advertising, now lets see what back-to-school products they purchased. Classroom supplies (paper, pens, etc.) were the most purchased items chosen by 89% of respondents. Second most purchased was clothing (84%) followed by backpacks/book bags (74%), and electronics (computers, calculators, etc.) bought by 36%. Back-to-school shoppers spent the most on clothing, an average spend of $188, followed by electronics ($111), classroom supplies ($90), and backpacks/book bags ($77). The majority of respondents said they spent about the same amount as they did last year.

  • 29% – spent more this year than last year
  • 52% – spent about the same amount
  • 10% – spent less this year than last year
  • 9% – didn’t shop for back to school last year

62% of respondents said their child plans to wear a special outfit on the first day of school. Of those, 10% said the child would be purchasing the outfit themselves. This is bringing back memories for me of the sparkly purple shirt and hot pink pants I wore on the first day of junior high. But I digress.

Back to Bricks & Mortar

The back-to-school shoppers we surveyed are all about shopping at actual stores rather than going online. 51% said they would be shopping in-store only or primarily in store while only 8% said they would be shopping online only or primarily online. The remaining 41% plans to shop equally in-store and online. Among those shopping in-store, the top retailers were: Walmart (80%), Target (56%), Dollar General, Dollar Tree, or Family Dollar (33%), and Kohl’s (29%). Among the online shoppers, top retailers were: Amazon (80%), (54%), (40%), and eBay (20%).

The Takeaways (aka Hand Outs)

If you were paying attention in class and have good reading comprehension skills you would have come away from this post with these four takeaways (not in order of importance): 1. parents prefer to do their back-to-school shopping in actual stores rather than online, 2. TV commercials are the best way to reach the shoppers who hold the purse strings for back-to-school supplies, 3. sales and discounts are the way to a back-to-school shopper’s heart, and 4. 12 year-old Allie had questionable fashion sense.


If you are interested in back-to-school shopping trends over time, check out these past AYTM survey posts:

2018 – Back to School Shopping Is a Must — Survey Reveals

2017 – Early Back to School Shopping Survey: Early August Most Popular Time to Shop

2016 – Back to School Technology Survey: Students Most Likely to Buy Tech

2015 – Back to School Shopping Survey: Sales Likely to Impact Buyers

2014 – Back to School Shopping Survey: More Shopping Online for Supplies

2013 – Back to School Survey: Sales Likely to Impact Shopping Decisions

2012 – Back to School Survey: Adult Students More Likely Than Parents to Shop Online

Allie Smith is the former Director of Charts for eMarketer with over 15 years of experience in the world of market research. Her love for charts and graphs is only outweighed by her love for her whippets. She spends her free time watching Law & Order reruns while knitting cute hats for dogs.