Online Vs. Brick-and-Mortar: Which Is Better for Back to School Shopping?

When it comes to electronics and big-ticket items, it’s assumed that while consumers may want to inspect merchandise in person before purchasing, they’ll ultimately find the best prices online. That’s what “showrooming” is all about. But what about smaller everyday purchases like, say, erasers, markers, construction paper, and other back-to-school staples? Are they cheaper when purchased online as well?

Actually, no. According to a new study from StellaService, a customer service rating firm, indicates that just the opposite is the case. On average, consumers will spend less by taking the old-fashioned approach of heading out and shopping in actual physical stores.

The study matched up online versus brick and mortar, evaluating several distinct parts of the shopping experience. In several categories, online was obviously superior. The average shopping time for a list of 13 basic back-to-school items was just 10 minutes online. Shopping for the same items in an actual store, meanwhile, ate up 30 minutes, and that didn’t include travel time.

On the other hand, the “in-store shopping experience enables shoppers to walk away with items in-hand, while online orders took an average of four days for delivery,” the study states. So, if you’re keeping score at home, shopping online is faster that shopping in physical stores, but shopping in physical stores allows consumers to get their hands on goods faster. This news will come as a surprise to, well, to no one whatsoever.

What may seem genuinely surprising, however, is that online shopping, often the de facto route for consumers seeking the lowest price, wound up costing more than hitting actual stores. The average price paid to complete the study’s 13-item sample shopping list in-store at retailers such as Office Depot, Target, Staples, and Walmart was $31, compared to $53 for online orders. Shipping costs, averaging about $10, accounted for some (but not all) of the difference.

Why is it that physical retailers seem to be more willing to compete on price for back-to-school goods? And why do e-retailers seem more apt to compete on price for electronics and big-ticket items than they do when it comes to mundane, inexpensive items like markers and construction paper?

(MORE: 9 Products Enjoying a Curious Surge in Sales)

The explanation may come down to the idea that consumers use online shopping for very different purposes, depending on what they’re shopping for. The typical consumer today who is trying to get back-to-school shopping completed online is probably doing so because he or she wants to get the process over with asap. This isn’t a price-sensitive shopper. Paying a few bucks extra is fine, so long as it’s over and done with quickly. It’s this type of shopper, along the minimal markup to begin with on cheap goods like markers and glue sticks, that gives e-retailers justification for charging relatively high prices.


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