Back to school (BTS) 2017 is officially in the books, and retailers are getting ready for the upcoming holiday season. Now is the time to reflect on key lessons learned for retailers.

This year’s back-to-school sales were projected to be the most successful in the last five years, with total combined spending for college and elementary levels expected to reach $83.6 billion, according to National Retail Federation’s annual survey conducted by Prosper Insights and Analytics. With new confidence in the economy and stronger employment, consumers are spending more across all the retail channels. This might be a good sign for the upcoming holiday season forecast.

In addition to record sales numbers, new technologies are changing the way customers experience the year’s second-largest shopping season. Here are three key takeaways from BTS 2017 that have caught my eye so far.

1.  Cheaper fulfillment options

One of the most critical drivers for the back-to-school shopping experience has been in the area of fulfillment, which continues to change like the wild, wild West. This year, Prosper research shows that nine out of ten back-to-school shoppers are making use of free shipping offers. Around half are relying on systems that allow them to buy online and pick up in the store (also known as BOPIS).

This isn’t a surprise – shipping rates that range as high as the cost of the item have increasingly become a pain point for online consumers. I’ve noticed that stores often focus on speed of delivery, and indeed this is a priority for shoppers. But we’re also seeing that the cost of delivery is still probably the single greatest consumer concern: Offer them a discount on delivery, and they will be more likely to shop with you. One such approach is the Amazon premium program, Amazon Prime. However, unless they live in a large family household, many shoppers are still not willing to pay out almost $100 a year (I’m one – the math doesn’t work for me), and a lot more disruptive thinking remains to be done here.

2.  Almost half of shoppers are using mobile

A second twist for this year has been the growing use of third-party mobile apps on the family smartphone and in the store. According to NRF’s July 2017 survey, 43 percent of consumers planned to use their smartphones during back-to-school shopping, a 10 percent increase from five years ago. Shoppers are using their phones for everything from general product research to actual purchases.

Many shoppers also use their smartphones to compare prices, download digital coupons, use discount and loyalty finders, check product availability, and take pictures of items they’re considering purchasing (International Council of Shopping Centers, 2017). Such practices are the ones that retailers worry about the most. With shades of showrooming, it can feel like your competition is right in the store. Some retailers unfortunately still respond to this issue by refusing to provide Wi-Fi service in the store at all – a no-win answer that will lose you customers.

It’s better by far to follow the example of leading retailers by providing a good customer experience in the store by using apps that track consumer behavior, offer an attractive, mobile-based, opt-in loyalty program, provide back-to-school recommendations, send out a well-informed associate, and make your own discount offers.

3.  Helping your shoppers shop

Another trend this year is apps that help shoppers shop. These include school supply lists, wish lists and recommendations, allowance managers for kids doing their own shopping, as well as niche apps to help determine shoe and clothing sizes. These are available as third-party services, but providing your own similar functionality for loyal customers can help to optimize their shopping experience.

Creating a good customer experience

Creating a memorable customer experience doesn’t have to be complicated – it’s just the same story of good service, productive workers, up-to-date information, and making sure that what people want to buy is available. The only difference is that retail technologies are now available to help you achieve these goals easily and efficiently.

As you’re thinking about the technology you need to meet consumers’ digital expectations, take a few minutes to look over this eBook on digital transformation in retail.


Mary Freeman

No Longer with Cisco