July 17, 2014, 2:45 PM

Back-to-school shopping knows no season

Shopping for school peaks during the summer, but it goes on all year long. While parents still mostly pay the bills, much else has changed.

Let’s face it: There is no greater buzz kill than one of those back-to-school ads, served up in the midst of a warm, long and lazy summer day.

There was a time when for millions of schoolkids those ads meant that the inevitable was nearly upon them. When the big retailers were crowing about the big deals they had on clothes, notebooks and printer cartridges, the long days of classrooms, note-taking and homework couldn’t be far behind.

That was then. Now, according to research firm eMarketer, the ads start almost before students are out of school for the summer. Walmart and Staples, for instance, began their promotions just as school was getting out  -- and with good reason. It turns out that students, even elementary school students, are savvy consumers who rely on mobile devices to shop -- and not just in August, but all year long.

Other researchers have reached similar conclusions.

“One of the major takeaways from our Cassandra Report research is that Generations Y and Z are discerning shoppers and diligent researchers who are cautious of their spending,” Rachel Krautkremer, who researches trends among young consumers, told me in an email exchange. “In fact, 54% of Cassandra Report respondents say they do more pre-purchase research than they did just five years ago.”

It is yet another way the dramatic move to mobile is changing our lives. In a recent study of back-to-school shopping habits, eMarketer found that nearly one-quarter of Internet users have already started researching their school supply and wardrobe purchases for the fall. Another 42 percent will be well down the research path by the end of July.

The trend seems to be largely driven by the first generation of mobile natives, students who have had smartphones by their sides since grade school. eMarketer notes that nearly all (97 percent) of 12- to 17-year-olds will be Internet users in 2014. And nearly half those 12 and under will be Internet users this year. It’s intriguing to consider how shopping will continue to change as those demographics roll into adulthood.

Think about it: We can work 24/7, watch live sports in the line at the supermarket, find the perfect chicken teriyaki in a crowded city we’ve never visited without ever asking another human for directions. And we can shop -- anytime or all the time.

“The reality is that, teens are shopping constantly,” Stephanie Wissink, of Piper Jaffray told eMarketer. They are “far more responsive and willing to click something in a mobile environment, far more so than the older generation.”

But like their elders, Krautkremer says, generations Y and Z (roughly those born since 1980), aren’t tied to one device and don’t think much about the different ways they shop during the day.

“It’s important to note that today's young consumers don’t compartmentalize their browsing and shopping behaviors into online, offline, or mobile, said Krautkremer, who is director of strategy at Noise / The Intelligence Group. “They switch seamlessly between these channels to create a 360-degree, always-on consumer experience, in which different types of shopping fulfill different needs.”

And just as the silos among devices have been obliterated, so too have the distinct dates around back-to-school season. Instead, the eMarketer report concludes, back to school is  an ongoing activity with a “pinnacle” of purchasing in the summer.

Still, amidst all the upheaval, two things, according to eMarketer, are not changing: When the purchases are actually completed (76 percent buy within a month of school starting) and who pays (parents).

For one thing, most online purchases require a credit card and most students need to turn to mom or dad for that. But even the power of the purse doesn’t necessarily mean that parents are calling all the shots. In fact, the path to purchase for school supplies and clothing is fairly complex. Kids, who are often brand loyal when it come to electronics and have strong opinions when it comes to fashion, exert a lot of influence on their parents, eMarketer says.

And the kids themselves are influenced by their peers and others that they follow on social networks. In all, The Intelligence Group estimates that children younger than 17 influence about $600 million in spending a year.

The stakes are hard to overstate.

Back-to-school spending is huge for retailers, eclipsed only by the winter holiday shopping season (which eclipses back-to-school by a lot). The National Retail Federation estimates that consumers will spend $72.5 billion on school supplies; and eMarketer says school spending will be up 16 percent over last year.

Which is a lot of money, no matter the time of year. Then again, maybe you can hold off on thinking about all that. It’s summer after all, traditionally a time for relaxation—at least for a few more weeks.

Graphics by BloomReach Datameister Daphna Torbati; sources National Retail Federation and eMarketer.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Reach him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com and follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.

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