College students make up a small percentage of the overall U.S. population. But they often have money to spend – and back-to-college shopping is a significant driver of retail sales. This year in particular, students heading back to school were expected to spend record amounts on dorm decor, clothing, and other campus essentials. And since today’s college students make up a large chunk of tomorrow’s affluent consumers, retailers across industries are eager to cement positive relationships with the segment.
So with fall semester just under way, we dove into the data to explore the spending habits of today’s undergraduate young adults. When do they shop? What do they like to buy? And what can retailers do to get their attention?
A Distinctly Seasonal Affair
To get a sense of when collegians tend to do the most shopping, we analyzed the monthly share of college students in the captured markets of select retailers and segments, using audience segmentation data from Spatial.ai’s PersonaLive. And the analysis revealed that student consumer behavior follows a clear seasonal pattern.
In 2019, the share of college students in the captured markets of big box superstores like Target and Walmart peaked in August, and to a lesser extent in June, July, and September, as collegians enjoyed their summer vacations and did their back-to-school shopping. Additional upticks emerged in January, when many students were on winter break. But during regular school months, when midterms, finals, and homework likely kept many students hunkered down in the library, their share in the chains’ captured markets was much lower. While this pattern was disrupted in the wake of COVID, it returned in full force in 2022. Similar seasonality arose when looking at wider segments like apparel and off-price retail, as well as various dining categories.
Price Isn’t Everything
In addition to seasonality, the above graphs also appear to indicate that despite their tight budgets, collegians don’t necessarily prioritize price over everything else. So to further explore the shopping preferences of college kids, we examined the share of the #College segment in the captured markets of popular chains across categories.
Trade area data seems to indicate that university students shop at Target, frequent non-off-price-apparel chains, eat at fast-casual restaurants – and make up smaller shares of the customer bases of less expensive alternatives. Indeed, as hard-up as they may be, undergrads know how to splurge and are willing to pay for high quality stuff. They can’t get enough Urban Outfitters and love mid to higher range brands like Madewell and lululemon athletica.
At the same time, college students are highly oriented to thrift shops – especially those like Buffalo Exchange and Plato’s Closet, where they can sell their old clothes and snag stylish, name-brand items for a steal.
Of course, the share of collegians in the captured market of any given retailer or segment can also be impacted by the behavior of other demographics. For example, if a particular chain attracts an extremely broad audience, a lower relative share of college students may indicate that their presence is being offset by other segments. Still, while a small share of collegians in a chain’s trade area may not necessarily mean that the chain does not appeal to this group, a disproportionate share of students in a chain’s captured market is a strong indication that the brand is embraced by this demographic.
And chains which see a smaller share of college students among their customer base may draw an outsize proportion of undergrads during peak season. Walmart’s captured market, for example, was just 14.0% over-indexed for the #College segment between September 2022 and August 2023, compared to a nationwide baseline. But looking just at August 2023 – peak college Back to School shopping season – the share of #College students in its captured market was 94.0% higher than the nationwide average. Walmart also enjoyed higher-than-average shares of collegians in September, June, July, January, and to a lesser extent – October. Dollar Tree, too, attracted an outsize share of collegians in the summer and in January.
Collegian shopping habits are shaped by the rhythms of campus life. And while students are budget-conscious, they place a high premium on quality and are willing to spend money on things that are important to them. Brands that can lean into college students’ seasonal groove – while providing the products they crave at price points that don’t break the bank – will be poised to win over this demographic, gaining customers that may stay with them for life.
How will college spending habits continue to evolve as the school year progresses? Which brands will stand out as collegian favorites?
Follow Placer.ai’s data-driven insights to find out.