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U.S. college freshmen to spend $2,300 on Back to School shopping this year

by Stephanie H.
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    Parents and educators aren’t the only ones with mixed emotions about the 2020 fall semester. Students are feeling it, too. UNiDAYS spoke to over 2,000 college-bound members of our Gen Z community panel. Read on to find out what they’ll be spending money on as they head into what’s arguably the most unusual academic year ever. 

    It’s been a tough year for Gen Z students worldwide.

    This year’s incoming U.S. college freshmen pulled the short straw when it came to high school graduation. For most, ceremonies to mark their matriculation were a mashup of well-intentioned diploma drive-thrus and small, socially distanced gatherings. To say it was an anti-climactic finish to the final four years of secondary school is an understatement. 

    Whether it’s a Zer’s first or final year of college, all students reported feeling generally anxious about a return to studying. Where we found the most difference among students, however, relates to what year they are in their college career.

    Final-year college students are overly relieved to be entering their final year of college, whereas the majority of new students, (76%) in spite of the circumstances, feel excited.

    For those familiar with the fun, the perks (freedom!) and the invaluable ‘character builders’ (ahem, incompatible roommates) that come from attending college, one can only hope that Gen Z is able to attend school for the 2020-21 academic year. With so much up in the air still, it’s hard to know what August will bring. 

    The good news for brands is that Gen Z is hopeful about college. According to a UNiDAYS survey:

    • 73% of new students believe that they’ll end up going to orientation week activities, whether in-person or online.
    • 90% said they expect to physically attend classes on campus.
    • More than half (56%) plan to live on or near campus
    • Over a third (34%) will live at home. 

    Based on UNiDAYS’ research, here’s what brands should know about the back to school 2020 opportunity.

    Read on for a breakdown on how and when Gen Z plans to spend their money as they plan for heading off to school. 

    First-time college students are projected to spend $751MM on BTS items in preparation for the 2020-21 school year. Returning college students are slated to spend $4.25 billion.

    Note: Both of these figures include a projected 12-month spend on subscriptions (like fitness, media and music providers). 

    Drilling down to the individual Z shopper, UNiDAYS found that, based on projected total BTS spend:
    New college students will spend $2,300 each.
    Returning students will spend nearly $1,200 each.


    Back to school shopping: If not now, when?

    • More than 60% of all new students have already started browsing but not yet buying
    • About half (50%) of new students will start buying BTS items over the next coming months
    • 1 in 4 have already started buying

    When UNiDAYS asked returning students the same question, they responded with less urgency but with still strong spending intentions:

    • Nearly half (48%) of returning students have started browsing but not yet buying
    • 41% will start actively purchasing BTS items in the coming months
    • Less than half (40%) are going to put off BTS shopping until a few weeks before they head out

    The interest for BTS shopping is there, and so is the desire and action. This presents a big opportunity for brands, as you ramp up messaging and as you market, advertise, and communicate with Gen Z—particularly first-time students who are more likely to spend across every BTS category. 

    That’s a large BTS spend, so where will all it go? 

    Now that brands know how much Gen Z will spend overall on BTS, in what categories will they spend it? UNiDAYS put that question to our members. Here’s what they had to say:

    School supplies

    They may well be past the marker-sniffing phase, but that’s not keeping Gen Z students from stocking up on school supplies for the 2020 academic year:

    • 81% of returning students and 91% of new students will shop for school supplies this year
    • UNiDAYS members' total projected spend for school supplies in BTS 2020: $355 million
    • More than 1 in 4 new students expect to spend $250+ each
    • The top 5 brands in this category: Walmart, Target, Amazon, OfficeDepot and Staples



    Sometimes, it’s all about the fit. College is one of those times. Gen Z students are preparing to update their wardrobes for the 2020 school year—even if classes are online.

    • 66% of returning students and 84% of new students will most definitely buy new clothes and apparel for the upcoming school year
    • UNiDAYS members' total projected spend for clothing and apparel in BTS 2020: $363 million
    • 1 in every 4 students expect to spend $200+ each
    • The top 5 brands in this category: American Eagle, Adidas, ASOS, Amazon and Boohoo.


    New beginnings call for an updated look, right? Seems like Gen Z students agree.
    • More than half (50%+) of returning students will update their cosmetics, toiletries, and beauty products in anticipation for the new school year
    • 66% of new students will also purchase beauty products this BTA season
    • UNiDAYS members' total projected spend in the beauty category in BTS 2020: $163 million
    • More than 1 in 5 will spend $150+ each
    • The top 5 brands in this category: Ulta, Target, Sephora, Walmart and Amazon.



    Students might be leaving home, but that doesn't mean they're going to give up their favorite entertainment and amenities, many of which they access via memberships and subscriptions.

    • 1 in 3 returning students and 44% of new students will buy subscriptions for the new academic year
    • UNiDAYS members' total projected spend in the subscriptions category in BTS 2020: $312 million
    • Music subscriptions are the most popular (82% of students)
    • At 53% of students, TV subscriptions are in second place
    • 38% will buy gym/health club subscriptions
    • The top 5 brands in this category: Spotify, Apple, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon


    Groceries/household products 

    The majority Gen Z students are stocking up before heading out. 

    • 7 in 10 (70%) students indicated that they will shop for groceries and household products
    • UNiDAYS members' total projected spend in the grocery/household category in BTS 2020: $387 million
    • More than a quarter (25%+) will spend $201+ each
    • The top 5 brands in this category: Walmart, Target, Kroger, Costco and Trader Joe’s.


    Kitchen and bedroom items 

    It’s not that surprising to find that new students will spend quite a bit more on kitchen and bedroom items than returning students. Here's what to expect during BTS 2020:

    • 60% of incoming Gen Z students plan on shopping for kitchen and bedroom items
    • Only 39% of returning students plan to shop in this category
    • UNiDAYS members' total projected spend in the kitchen and bedroom item category: $184 million
    • 40% of Gen Z students will spend more than $150 each
    • The top 5 brands in this category: Target, Walmart, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Amazon, and TJ Maxx


    Technology and gadgets

    It’s practically impossible for Zs to go to college without a solid tech arsenal and a stash of associated gadgets. So it's no surprise that they'll be spending big on BTS 2020.

    • More than 1 in 3 will buy new tech and gadgets for school
    • That number climbs to 45% for new students
    • UNiDAYS members' total projected spend in the tech category in BTS 2020: $1.2 billion
    • The top 5 brands in this category: Apple, BestBuy, Amazon, Samsung and Walmart.


    Computers, laptops and hardware

    Fortunately for brands, computers are a given, year after year. This segment offers a big opportunity among freshmen especially:

    • 65% of new students will be buy computers and hardware
    • Far fewer (39%) returning students will buy in this category
    • 83% of returning students will opt for a laptop
    • And a whopping 93% of new students will purchase a laptop
    • For nearly half of those new students, this will be their first laptop
    • 42% of respondents said they would spend over $1000
    • UNiDAYS members' total projected spend in this category: $1.4 billion and $1.1 billion for computers/hardware and laptops, respectively
    • The top 5 brands in this category: Apple, Best Buy, HP, Dell and Amazon



    While laptops are preferred by students, some still plan on purchasing a desktop PC. UNiDAYS members’ total projected spend on desktop/PC for the new school year is $207 million.



    In addition to laptops, 43% of returning students and nearly half of new students will also be buying a tablet and plan on spending upwards of $500 each. Half are buying a tablet for the first time, and 35% are upgrading.

    UNiDAYS members’ total projected spend for tablets for the new school year is $379 million.



    What can students do when they can’t mingle in person? Play video games with their friends, of course. Perhaps that’s why more than 1 in 4 of respondents said they were buying a new gaming console before heading off to school. Nearly half are upgrading, and 37% are buying a gaming console for the first time. 

    More than a third of them intend on spending between $501-$1000 each

    UNiDAYS members’ total projected spend for game consoles for the new school year is $122 million.


    Fitness trackers/wearables

    UNiDAYS members’ total projected spend for fitness trackers and wearables for the new school year is $70 million.



    UNiDAYS members’ total projected spend on cameras for the new school year is $132 million.



    UNiDAYS members’ total projected spend on e-readers for the new school year is $17 million.


    Smartphones and contracts

    New (school) year, new phone. It’s good news for device manufacturers and carriers.

    • 42% of Z students will be buying a smartphone/contract for the new school year
    • 1 in 4 are prepared to spend over $1,000 each
    • The majority of these purchases (70%) will upgrade an existing device
    • 1 in 5 plan on making a lateral purchase or a like-for-like replacement

    UNiDAYS members’ total projected spend for smartphones/contracts for the new school year is $335 million (not including ongoing monthly payments/top-ups).


    Brands and back to school 2020: How to proceed

    A lot of info to take in? We know. So let’s break it down:

    This year, Gen Z college students are looking forward to the upcoming academic year—even if we can’t ignore the elephant in the room that is COVID-19. Nonetheless, brands should embrace Gen Z’s anticipation and purchasing intentions. 

    While all students (new and returning) merit specific attention from brands, first-year students represent a major opportunity in the back to school season.

    Whether classes are online or in-person, these new students will have the same technology and furnishing needs that a ‘normal’ freshmen year on campus would require. 

    In a year that’s been especially hard for both college-bound and returning students, brands should acknowledge their efforts, triumphs, and strength as they prepare for this next life milestone. As always, Gen Z is keenly aware of how companies behave, so be mindful of the pressures they’re under and be authentic as you market to them in these ongoing times of uncertainty. 


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