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Back-to-college shopping: Who’s in control?

Last year’s back-to-school sales reached an all-time high at a whopping $75.8 billion1. We tend to think of grades K-12 when talking about back-to-school, but the majority (64%) of those sales were actually attributed to shopping for college students2. And that got us thinking: student or parent — who really has the say when it comes to back-to-college shopping?

To find out, Alliance Data’s Analytics and Insights Institute conducted a College Confessions survey, which polled 441 college students and 432 parents of college students to find out more about the parent-student relationship when it comes to back-to-school shopping.


Students are (mostly) in control.

Although not surprising, the survey found that parents and students don’t always see eye-to-eye about back-to-college shopping. They send mixed messages about who will fund those necessary purchases, as the majority of both segments expect to foot around 80% of the bill themselves. But regardless of who’s buying, students tend to have a higher degree of control than their parents, with 69% of students claiming 80% or more control over all the back-to-college purchases. Still, 1 in 7 parents say their student has no control over the items they’ll purchase them before they head back to college.


Parents and college students view back-to-school shopping as “Credit 101”

While shopping is the center of the back-to-school season, it’s also a time for many college students to establish credit. According to the survey, 69% of college students say they’re likely to open a new credit card to help pay for their back-to-school expenses, and 61% of their parents say they’ll likely have their student open one.


Parents are first influenced by students, students by price.

Whether it’s school supplies, apparel, or dorm and living essentials, parents look to their student’s opinions first when deciding what to purchase. On the flip-side — and likely the result of having less saved up — students are first and foremost price-sensitive, ranking good promotions and sales as the most influential factor when deciding what to buy. They’re also more inclined to have a back-to-college budget, perhaps assuming their parents will help them out if needed; while 57% of parents have a set budget in mind, when we asked the students, 77% said they had a set budget and only 10% thought their parents had one.

“College is a unique time for the parents of students,” says Shannon Andrick, VP of Marketing Advancement at Alliance Data. “They’re learning to navigate the fine line between continuing to guide and support their now-adult kids, without being too overbearing. It’s not surprising that the student is in the driver’s seat when it comes to back-to-college shopping, but that the parents still help out financially.”


Social platforms influence back-to-college shopping

When buying apparel, students are more likely to turn to social media for influence (78%) than bloggers, Pinterest, and YouTube (73%), which are more influential to them when purchasing dorm and living essentials (80%).


So, what’s the back-to-college lesson for retailers?

In order to get more of the back-to-college wallet share, retailers must first and foremost tailor their marketing messages toward students, because they have a significant level of control when it comes to the purchase decisions. Focus on price — without compromising on style — as these budget-conscious students will likely split the bill. And, be sure to inspire them in the channels they frequent, like Instagram and YouTube — you’ll reach them loud and clear.


About the study

The survey was commissioned by Alliance Data’s Analytics and Insights Institute and conducted online by an independent research company from May 29  – June 2, 2017. The study polled a sample of 441 college students (4.61% margin of error) and 432 parents of college students (4.66% margin of error).

Other sources

1,2 Mintel Back to School Shopping, January 2017




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