Back-to-school Season: A Stressful Time for Many

The collective purchasing power of college students and their families constitute a significant portion of revenue for retailers and online merchants this time of year. In fact, total spending on college-related merchandise is expected to reach $48.4 billion in 2014. According to the National Retail Federation’s 2014 Back-to-College Survey, the average college student and their family will spend $916.48 on dorm furniture, school supplies, electronics and more. Retailers are making strides to build and sustain loyal relationships with their customers.

What Retailers Are Doing

Amazon takes several unique approaches to cater to college students. Students can sign up for Amazon Student, which includes various perks. By participating in this program, students receive free, two-day shipping on millions of items for six months, exclusive deals and promotions and a $10 gift card with each friend referral. Not only does Amazon accommodate to students’ needs in the U.S, but the company is introducing a program in Canada which allows university and college students to receive six months of free, two-day shipping of items eligible under its Amazon Prime membership.

There are also great incentives for college students to shop at Apple. With the purchase of a Mac for college, customers receive a free $100 Apple Store Gift Card. In addition, Apple offers a free $50 Apple Store Gift Card when customers buy an iPad or iPhone for college.

Bed Bath & Beyond (BBB) targets customers through personalization, convenient delivery options and contests. This big box retailer, along with The Container Store and Target, allows students to create gift registries that can include items like shower caddies, bedding supplies and other dorm room accessories and the ability to share their list with family and friends. Customers can access customized lists of what students can and cannot bring to thousands of schools throughout the country. Plus, general campus and apartment checklists are made available in the stores or online. The moving solutions the store offers also ease the college shopping experience. BBB also features a sweepstakes program, which allows college students to submit a picture of their finished, decorated dorm room to win prizes.

The Container Store and Target reach out to college shoppers through more creative measures. The Container Store hosts private college savings events throughout the country. These exclusive private shopping parties offer an opportunity to socialize while shopping. Target launched videos featuring prominent YouTube stars to showcase trendy back-to-college items. The videos follow a “before-and-after” format, showing the transformation of a boring room into a redecorated space featuring Target products.

Why It’s Working–And What They Could Be Doing

These retailers serve their customers by using different strategies. Creativity and innovation ultimately drive success for these retailers because customers shop at these stores based on the products needed and shopping experience they enjoy.

Retailers are building loyal customers with their back-to-college shopping programs. Nonetheless, there is always room for improvement. Perhaps more of these companies could model Apple and implement incentives for customers to receive rewards on the spot. I believe that receiving a gift card or free item rather than an immediate discount is preferable because customers often enjoy walking out with something tangible.   During back-to-college season, several retailers could partner to allow customers to use one shopping cart at these stores simultaneously. This saves time and lessens the inconvenience of visiting each retailer’s website or store.

Marketers for retailers are clearly changing the college shopping landscape. Creating initiatives that fit their customers’ needs allow them to make in-store and out-of-store shopping experiences easy and enjoyable. Let’s see what retailers do in the future to maintain loyal relationships with consumers.


Meredith Cohen was our 2014 summer intern. An Atlanta-native and rising sophomore at UNC Chapel Hill, she plans to double major in Public Relations and Communication Studies. In her free time, she’s a member of Tri Sigma sorority and volunteers for UNC Hillel’s Challah for Hunger community service project.