Aside from the holidays, back-to-school is the busiest shopping season in the U.S. in a given year. In fact, some view it as a trend line for how consumers will behave in the period between the end of summer and the beginning of the holidays.

For generations, back-to-school shopping was a seminal parent-child experience immortalized in movies and sitcoms. Basic setup: child and parent arrive at big box store. Child wants off-task stuff, i.e. fun backpack. Parent trying desperately to stick to school-provided list. Hilarity ensues!

Well, like most experiences — from shopping to Starbucks and back again — back-to-school shopping is going more and more mobile.

The stats on mobile back-to-school shopping

62% of millennials headed back to school this fall plan to shop with a smartphone, with 80% planning to shop online generally.

18% of 18-24 year-old back-to-school shoppers will use Apple Pay this year to make a purchase, with about 10% using Android Pay.

85% of YouTube video views about back-to-school ideas, such as Target’s campaign last year with “official college stylists” showing how to decorate dorm rooms, are viewed on mobile. Between mid-July and late-August, the viewing times for those videos jump 70% relative to other parts of the year.

The whole deal is beginning earlier and earlier: according to Google’s own 2016 research, July 11th week was when back-to-school mobile searches started rising drastically. That’s a full week earlier than 2015.

Here’s the rub, though: many of these stats are about the back-to-schoolers themselves, but oftentimes kids don’t have their own money, summer jobs be darned. So are parents in on this mobile revolution? Yes. According to Rubicon Project, 60% of them plan to use mobile for back-to-school shopping this year. 30% plan to do a quarter or more of their shopping on mobile.

J.C. Penney uses back-to-school to entice mobile shoppers

Clearly, marketers who don’t want to be left behind need to take advantage of the ever-growing number of mobile shopping. Like J.C. Penney; best-known as a brick and mortar brand, this year they released a campaign around “Back To School Shopping Made Easier.” The crux of it, including a video set to “Here Comes The Hotstepper,” is all about driving mobile app installs. When a user installs the J.C. Penney app, they get a $10 back-to-school credit.

JC Penney.jpg

J.C. Penney takes advantage of back-to-school shopping to reach more mobile shoppers, and boost app installs.

That was the first time in its history J.C. Penney crafted a TV spot pushing people to mobile, but it was time: according to their own data, their app users visit stores 3x more and purchase 3.5x more than non-app users.

Times are changin’.

What does this mean for mobile back-to-school strategy?

It all means several things, starting with “You should have one.” You’ll want to consider:

  • Ease of experience. Generationally, back-to-school shopping is focused on Gen X (parents), millennials (students and possibly parents of young students by now), and Gen Z (students). All three of those generations have enough life experience with mobile that their expectations have a certain bar. For example: over 60% of users leave apps or mobile e-commerce sites because of slow load, poor navigation, or generally clunky UX. Back-to-school shopping can be stressful. (Always has been.) If you’re adding to that stress on mobile, you won’t get those sales.
  • Video. You see those YouTube stats above. Students and their parents want ideas for dorm rooms, desk organization (for younger students), backpacks, etc. and short videos are a great way to reach people. Target partnered with influencers that already had a youth following. That might not be in every company’s budget, but you can still make a short, fun video for either in-app usage or to drive app installs.
  • Snap and Insta. 80% of Gen Z (the youngest back-to-school shoppers) are influenced by social media posts, with that generation specifically focused on Snap and Instagram. Gurjit Sandhu, a senior marketing specialist at Yes Lifecycle Marketing, recently told Retail Dive that “It’s about making things visual and providing value added content. What appeals more to [consumers] is the personal connection, the human touch. Having a narrative, having that story in terms of back-to-school I think would be very advantageous for retailers.” Sandhu also suggests utilizing offers within social, be it organic or tied to an ad campaign.
  • App partnerships. Consider that Cozi, a family organization app, just reached 20 million active users. There are dozens of others in that space, too. Consider partnering with a place where families are already organizing information, i.e. back-to-school lists, and giving them easy access to deals and offers right from an app they’re already using.


Image Cozi helps families stay on top of busy schedules and long to-do lists.

The bottom line on back-to-school shopping and mobile marketing

You’ve all seen Broad City, right? Hannibal Burress’ character always says “KWP,” or “Keys Wallet Phone.” Those are the three things you never leave home without. Well, the reality since that joke sequence was first dropped is this: for many people, KWP is one device now, that being your smartphone. Many long-standing in-person, brick-and-mortar traditions — like back-to-school shopping or “braving the holiday crowds” — were logically going to move over to mobile and digital. Now it’s about how companies capture those shoppers in those periods of huge potential revenue.

Hopefully this gave you a blueprint for back-to-school shopping on the mobile side, but we’d love to know: What other tactics have you seen from brands that seem to be working well?

Read more: Back to School Shopping