Back to uni: Key trends and opportunities for retailers

With the back-to-school period well underway in the UK, and many university students set to return to their studies in the coming weeks, we take a look at the huge opportunities on offer for retailers.

Back-to-school search trends

The back-to-school period is one of the largest sales events of the year, and 2017 is predicted to hit a record high, with an estimated retail value of £580m. Studies show that this spending frenzy isn’t impulse or panic buying; students and parents have done their homework, with 37% of shoppers searching for back-to-school goods in as early as July in 2016. A*s all round.

As people tend to shop in micro-moments throughout the day, more of these searches are happening on mobile. In July 2016, three out of five back-to-school searches happened on mobile, representing a 35% year-on-year increase.

Research also shows that more than half of parents are influenced by their child when purchasing back-to-school items, meaning that advertisers will need to consider gearing their marketing towards the students if they’re looking to boost sales.

Back to uni

With the back-to-school period almost over, many retailers are now focusing on returning university students – and rightly so. The graph below highlights university students’ purchase intent, based on trends and key dates, showing a huge upsurge in interest in student-related items throughout August and September.

Trend graph - shopping intent. Source: Google Trends

Trend graph – shopping intent. Source: Google Trends

It’s still a family affair

Only 60% of university students purchase their own school equipment, with many leaving their parents to foot the bill.

Buying intent for both parents and students picks up in late August, around about the time that students receive their A-level results, and this continues well into September. Research into student loans generally sees a spike around this time, with growing interest around when first-time loans will be received. In late September we see an increase in online spend amongst students eager to make the most of their newly acquired funds. For many, this could be their first taste of having a disposable income – it may even be their first real experience of making independent buying decisions, making this is a great opportunity for brands to win new potential customers.


Searches for home decor products and homeware also see an upsurge during this period, with decorative throws and pillows seeing a 20% month-on-month increase in August 2016 and through to September, as students prepare to fly the nest. Kitchen appliances also see growth, with toasters and kettles among the most popular.

Search term: Toaster, Biggest spike is the end of September. Source: Google Trends

Search term: Toaster, Biggest spike is the end of September. Source: Google Trends

New threads

Eager to impress, students are taking to YouTube in search of inspiration for their new grown-up looks. In previous years, back-to-school-related YouTube videos received an impressive 385 million views, with a 70% year-on-year increase in 2016. This suggests that brands should consider strengthening their YouTube presence and look to provide useful, tailored content, in order to have maximum impact.

Clothes shopping comes in at a close second, after searches for textbooks. While book sales remain consistent throughout the year, clothing sales see a strong peak around August and September, just before the first semester. Studies have shown that 73% of clothes-related posts on social media are posted by women.

According to Google search trends, Victoria’s Secret’s PINK brand backpacks saw a 1,000% spike in search interest in 2016, making it the top trending brand in the category.

Source: Crimson Hexagon - Blog on what students in the UK buy for uni

Source: Crimson Hexagon – Blog on what students in the UK buy for uni


The student discount

All good things must come to an end and with the reality of independent living and budget restriction coming into play, being thrifty has never been so trendy. So now is a great time to roll out the student discounts.

For the last five years, the last weekend in September has seen a huge spike in students showing intent to buy or actively searching for shops that offer a student discount. If you are looking to capture the student market or to engage with a new market, now is the time.

UK: search term: student discount, 1 August - 30 September 2016. Source: Google Trends

UK: search term: student discount, 1 August – 30 September 2016. Source: Google Trends


Stores like Tesco, Etsy, and Not on the High Street have also become more student-friendly by creating dedicated landing pages relating to student ‘home life’ and providing essentials for students.

This spending spree doesn’t last though, with the reality of budgeting hitting home soon after joining university, so now is a good time to get out there and engage with students to make the most of the opportunity.

Average monthly student spending. Source:

Average monthly student spending. Source:

by Croud
18 September 2017



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