Today we have an exclusive ethnographic study on the back-to-school shopping scene, highlighting how retailers and marketers are reaching Millennials as they get ready for another school year. I, a Millennial myself, braved department stores, mass merchandisers, national chain stores, and office supply stores this past Friday to see who was shopping, what they were stocking up on, and what brought them into the stores during Labor Day weekend. Read on to find out the scoop…

As I walked through two malls, catchy, colorful signs called to shoppers promising affordable prices on back-to-school products. But despite the steep discounts, there weren’t nearly as many shoppers out as I anticipated, especially considering students are shopping later and later each year hoping for the best deals. The malls and office supply stores were moderately busy, but not as much as one might expect for Labor Day weekend. Moreover, big box stores like Target and Kohls, room décor stores such as Bed, Bath & Beyond and The Container Store, and free-standing retailers like Old Navy were relatively empty in comparison when I visited. Granted most college students have already left for school, but the low turnout during what’s known to be a big shopping time means Millennials aren’t spending as much this year or they’re mostly focused on the essentials.

ExpressTween and teen girls — who were the majority of shoppers — tended to shop for shoes, jeans, technology, and, of course, school supplies. They were mostly accompanied by their moms, presumably the ones making the purchases and hoping to take advantage of the special promotions. That’s not to say guys weren’t doing BTS shopping, but there were far fewer guys than girls, probably because boys didn’t want to deal with crowded stores and are more likely to shop online.

Sales are one of the best ways to get shoppers in the door and clothes off the shelves, but today’s tweens, teens, and twenty-somethings want more than just “unbeatable deals”: they want shopping to be a social and exciting experience. Sure they appreciate the low prices, but they also want stores to have engaging incentives and interactive features.

Computer ShoppingMillennials seemed most interested in the stores that let them “play with products.” Tween and teen girls filled group-friendly stores — ones that girls can go to when they want to socialize and shop. Stores like Claire’s, DELiA*s, Forever 21, and Sephora were filled with such customers, since these stores offer trendy, age appropriate items at reasonable prices. Tween and teen girls can browse such stores with friends, easily try on make-up, accessories, and cool clothes, and make purchases without breaking their bank. Girls go to these stores with friends more often than with parents. The social setting makes it appealing for girls in groups, allowing them to be actively involved and experiment with self-expression.

Forever XXIWhen girls were with their moms, they tended to go to different stores, typically ones that are more expensive. When it comes to clothes, once popular collegiate-inspired brands such as Abercrombie, Aeropostale, American Eagle, Hollister, and Who.A.U, are not as enticing to Millennials this season. These stores were relatively empty in comparison to H&M, Express, and the teen sections of department stores like Nordstrom. Millennials seem to be sick of the logos and lack of individuality associated with the former brands, and instead prefer stores like the latter where they can mix and match unique styles to form their own identity.

With it’s hands-on displays, it was no surprise that Apple was one of the most packed stores in both malls I visited. Technology is always on Millennials’ minds, especially at back-to-school time. Students want hot new Apple products for the school year, but they also enjoy browsing the store because of its sleek design and the “cool factor” associated with the brand. Even young kids were enamored with the environment at Apple, as well as Staples, where they could test out an array of tech products.

Moreover, almost every tween and teen out shopping was glued to his or her cellphone (big surprise!). They were texting their friends and surfing social networks, which is why more retailers should implement strategies that connect in-store shopping and social networking. QR codes may seem like the obvious way to attract a tech-savvy generation, but Millennials aren’t particularly interested in them, largely because they don’t know how to use them or see value in them. In fact, only two out of the 30+ stores I visited — Macy’s and Express — offered QR codes. The ones at Macy’s stuck out because they were on large displays, however the QR codes at Express were placed at the bottom of the windows in the store’s entrance, only serving to make Millennials even less likely to use them. In fact, if I hadn’t been on the lookout for QR codes, I would have easily missed them.

Macy's QR CodeInstead of QR codes, some stores are implementing other interactive strategies. Steve Madden had sales associates outside its entrance passing out scratch cards for shoppers to win discounts. Other stores give customers special sales if they checked in to the store online, or “liked” the brand on Facebook while shopping. Staples partnered with DoSomething.org and the cast of “Pretty Little Liars” to gives local students school supplies when shoppers check in via FourSquare. Unlike scanning QR codes, checking in or going on Facebook is part of Millennials’ regular routine, so they’re more inclined to do so while shopping, especially if it’s for a brand or cause they like.

Stores visited: Abercrombie, Abercrombie & Fitch, Aeropostale, American Apparel, American Eagle, Apple, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Claire’s, The Children’s Place, The Container Store, CVS, DELiA*s, Express, Foot Locker, Forever 21, Gap, H&M, Hollister, J.Crew, Juicy Couture, Kohls, Lucky Brand Jeans, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Old Navy, Sephora, Staples, Steve Madden, Target, Who.A.U