Back-to-school spending is testing omnichannel retail strategies as store owners cater to an increasingly demanding market that expects a seamless experience across all channels. While retailers clear their shelves from one of the biggest back-to-school shopping seasons in history, they’re already strategizing for how they’ll interact with consumers next year. Experts say consumers’ rapid adoption of mobile as an online and in-store aid will require retailers to rapidly adopt more effective omnichannel strategies.

The back-to-school season continues to grow as a major shopping occasion. A recent survey conducted by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights and Analytics found that K-12 parents planned to spend more than $75 billion on school supplies this year. According to Prosper principal analyst Pam Goodfellow, many consumers are “scouring ads and websites for the best deals, and taking advantage of free shipping with online purchases.”

Yet one of the most revealing findings from the NRF survey was that nearly half of all parents said they would shop online, a significant jump from 36 percent the year before. Nearly 90 percent of those online shoppers said they planned to take advantage of free shipping, while more than half said they liked conveniences like being able to buy online and pick up in-store.

Omnichannel Retail Is Crucial

A.T. Kearney reported that back-to-school spending was fueled by omnichannel retail. It noted that while consumers make big leaps to mobile, they still use brick-and-mortar stores as their primary channel in the retail equation. This makes omnichannel more important than ever, as nearly nine in 10 consumers said a superior shopping experience in-store, online and via mobile was very important. According to Joel Alden, A.T. Kearney partner and co-author of the study, these “remarkable” changes in the past year should prompt retailers to act. “Overall, the back-to-school season should be good news for retailers who have been doing their omnichannel homework; and perhaps a wake-up call to those who have been reluctant to make these investments,” says Alden.

Retailers can capitalize on this popular spending season by improving and enhancing their omnichannel shopping experiences. As an article in Retail Dive states, the back-to-school season “puts omnichannel shopping strategies to the test.” The rapid adoption of mobile as a digital and in-store shopping tool means retailers need to optimize their omnichannel strategies as a critical component of operations.

Major Retailers Are Leveraging Omnichannel Tactics

Many retailers did use omnichannel strategies to boost sales this back-to-school season, creating a more seamless experience that makes it easier to buy in a store, online, with a mobile device or using any combination of the three. Brett Biggs, executive vice president and chief financial officer at Walmart, said at an analyst presentation in June that “growth looks different today” and that it’s now “about mobile e-commerce … fulfillment capabilities … and developing new services.”

Many large retailers are using apps that include mobile payments and applications that make it easier to find items online or in-store. Some retailers even used this back-to-school season to introduce new omnichannel efforts. J.C. Penney bolstered its “buy online, pick up in-store” program in August to include more than 150,000 back-to-school items. Staples is also beta testing an enhanced version of their mobile app which allows parents to share their child’s back-to-school shopping list to help an associate gather the needed items.

Digital technologies and social media will continue to shape the shopping experience. According to the Back to School Survey 2016 by Deloitte, 61 percent of consumers now conduct research online before making an in-store purchase. Pat Dermody, president of Retale, told Retail Dive that the shift to mobile is fueling the customer experience both in stores and in the digital world, making this a “critical time for building or breaking customer relationships.”

She goes on to note that “back-to-school is a really important time for retailers, and the mobile device itself is geared to drive conversion in how it allows you to interact.”

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