For Back-To-School Shopping, Waiting In Line At The Store Might Be Better Than Buying Online

It’s been a while since any of us here at Consumerist HQ have had to do any sort of back-to-school shopping, but we all remember the crowded stores and awkwardly running into schoolmates while our parents forced us to try on pants that didn’t fit (Okay… maybe that’s just me; stop judging). So it would seem like going online to buy new clothes and supplies would be ideal, but a new study says… maybe not.

The online retail experience folks at STELLAService decided to see how the various aspects of back-to-school shopping stacked up when comparing online buying against bricks-and-mortar retailers.

“As a company that champions ecommerce, we expected the online experience to be smoother,” writes STELLA. “But, we found there’s still plenty of room for online retailers to improve if they want to best their brick-and-mortar business.”

For the study, STELLA partnered with a mystery shopping service. The former hit up the online stores of Target, Walmart, Costco, Staples, Office Max, and Office Depot, while the latter stood in line at these same stores. Both groups used identical shopping lists of back-to-school items to see how their experiences compared.

The in-store shoppers found customer service at the retail locations to be “accessible, friendly and helpful,” which is a reason some people choose to shop at a store in the first place. Meanwhile, getting customer service online requires more effort. Though calls to most of the stores’ websites resulted in a human being on the line in two minutes or less, only two of the sites offer live chat, and only Walmart responded to all e-mailed questions within two days.

Writes STELLA:

No retailer excelled at providing complete answers to questions. Target led the field in answering questions completely, doing so 72 percent of the time. This means online shoppers hoping to answer a simple question through email could find themselves waiting days for a response.

When it comes to the time actually spent shopping, the web blows retail away.

It only took about 10 minutes for online shoppers to make their purchases. That is 1/3 the time it took the average retail shopper — and that doesn’t include travel time.

A big part of the reason it takes so much longer is that things are not organized clearly in retail stores.

“Many items were in the ‘school section,’ while some were in the nearby ‘art section.’” explains one shopper. “When I asked about where the calculators were, I was directed to the Back to School section in the back corner of the store. However, the calculators were not there.”

In the retailers’ favor, the study found that these store’s websites don’t generally offer the speedy checkout that you’ll find at Amazon or other online-only retailers. The time it takes to go through the process of entering billing and shipping addresses, along with credit card info, can take about the same time as whisking through a self-checkout line.

And of course, any time saved in the online shopping process is more than made up for by the wait to actually receive your purchases. The study found an average of a four-day wait for delivered items.

And even then, some retailers ship online orders piecemeal, meaning that customers could receive items on different days and from different shippers. One online buyer ordered 13 items from Walmart and received five boxes over the course of 8 days.

So what about price?

This was the big surprise for us. The average in-store receipt totaled $31, while shopping online cost a whopping average of $53 for the same items.

The reason for the huge price difference is that only one of the online stores — Costco — offered free shipping, meaning that buyers had to pay a significant amount to have their orders shipped. Even then, the average shipping cost was only $10, which seems to show that these retailers are not offering the same discounts online as they are in the store.

While the study doesn’t go into this, our best guess is that the retailers are looking at in-store back-to-school deals as a way to get people into the stores in the hope that they might buy things other than new socks and Trapper Keepers. So it is in the stores’ best interest to take that risk in the store, while online shoppers are more likely to buy what they want and sign out.

What this study also tells us is that you probably shouldn’t shop for back-to-school items at websites for the same stores you would usually visit this time of year.

We have a hunch that if the study had included Amazon and other online-only retailers, that price discrepancy would have been in favor of online shoppers.

For Back To School Shopping, In-Store Bests The Online Experience [STELLAService]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    “A big part of the reason it takes so much longer is that things are not organized clearly in retail stores. ”

    Though this study doesn’t exactly target grocery stores, the above quote probably also applies to the likes of Walmart, Target, etc. Grocery stores organize their section for the specific purpose of getting you to see more product and thus buy more products. And specifically the products you shouldn’t be buying. This is why Produce, Meat, Dairy, and Bakery sections are spread throughout the store. If you want to buy only raw, basic foods, you need to pass literally every aisle in the store that doesn’t have raw, basic foods, but instead has all the processed and junk foods.

    I have no doubt non-grocery stores are designed this way at some level.

    • nbs2 says:


      Our current megamart of choice (HEB Plus, it’s like a poor Wegmans) is laid out such that I hit Produce on entry, go straight to the Bakery, stay to the right for the Meat (Deli on the left), and follow that back wall past all the refrigerated Dairy (ice cream case is an aisle) items. If I want packaged breads, that’s in an aisle.

      Once I have my Dairy, I pass through one aisle (or the alcohol section), up the wide aisle (unless I want to go through floral), and I’m at the registers. Getting bread or ice cream satisfies the first aisle requirement.

      If I skip the Meat and Dairy, I can go straight from the bakery to the registers. If I just skip the Dairy, I can double back from Meat to the neighboring Bakery and get to the registers.

      Not every store is designed to trap you.

  2. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    You know there’s another factor… when you’re doing back to school shopping online, you can do it at 1 am and don’t have to worry about your kids in your face. Try doing the same shopping at a store during opening hours. Then you have your kids, most likely, and everyone else’s kids in your face.

  3. Coffee says:

    One HUGE problem with this study is that isn’t included in the list of online retailers because it doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar analog. I guess in the interest of keeping things “equal”, they only selected storefronts that are both brick-and-mortar and online, but that doesn’t reflect reality at all. Realistically, if I’m back-to-school shopping, I’m making a list, then hitting up slickdeals every day at some point during the summer. If I get a deal, great. If not, fine. Next, I go to and several other online retailers to compare prices on other supplies. So my experience in no way compares to what the people in this study were doing. And I don’t think many Consumeristas’ experience would mirror it either.

  4. PragmaticGuy says:

    And this is why Americans are getting fatter. Because they’re too lazy to get off their duffs and get OUT to do something.

    • Kuri says:

      Was that really necessary?

    • Coffee says:

      Going shopping for school supplies is doing something? I shop online so that on the weekend, I can go hiking and not waste time doing banal shit like shopping.

      • chefboyardee says:

        I am 100% with you on this. My weekends are for taking the kid and dog to the park, hiking, swimming, etc. Shopping is not how I get my exercise, thankyouverymuch.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      Humans follow the same law of nature as….well, all of nature and the universe itself. Path of least resistence. More precisely, the path of least energy usage.

  5. balderdashed says:

    So somebody decided to do a survey of online vs. brick-and-mortar retailers — and didn’t bother to include Amazon, America’s largest internet retailer? That’s like doing a survey of the world’s great religions, and leaving out Christianity. These guys don’t deserve to be taken seriously, and what’s more, there’s no real news here. Shoppers aren’t generally surprised to see spiral notebooks, erasers, ballpoint pens, etc., at cheap prices at Target, etc. during back-to-school season. But back-to-school shopping typically includes some higher priced items as well, such a laptops, where online will have the edge, and shipping may well be free. And what kind of “friendly, proactive, accessible customer service” does one need when purchasing ball point pens? STELLAService appears desperate to justify its existence and market its dubious services — with the most bogus and contrived “survey” imaginable.

  6. triana says:

    Staples always has in-store deals where you can get paper or folders for a nickel, a penny, or even free. It’s worth it if you’re able to wait in those MASSIVE lines. It won’t be quick, but it’ll be cheap.

  7. NotEd says:

    Hey, Stella! Hey, Stellaaa!

  8. time4coffee says:

    In the retailers’ favor, the study found that these store’s websites don’t generally offer the speedy checkout that you’ll find at Amazon or other online-only retailers

    Maybe you should add the online retailers. I’ll go to a retailer if I need something immediately but if I have a couple of days, I will shop on Amazon. Why bother with a messed a retailer’s web site when they build them to be a mess. I’ll go somewhere where it pays to shop online (and I shop for a lot more online than off)

  9. Oranges w/ Cheese says:

    Office depot has or had a ridiculous deal where you bought only $5 worth of stuff and you got FIVE composition books for free. That’s ridiculous and awesome.

  10. MBZ321 says:

    Seems kind of odd that people buy “school supplies” online…when you can just wander down to Walgreens or the grocery store or wherever and pick up everything.
    School supplies (the basic kind) are loss-leaders for every store this time of year…it is just stupid to buy that stuff online, (unless you can find the same prices with free shipping.)

  11. amylynn1022 says:

    I have to agree with the many commenters who found this study weak. For one thing I would not shop at Target, Walmart, insert-your-fav-big-box-store’s website. I’d shop at an online retailer, which is likely to have a better selection and smoother purchase process.

    And frankly there are something that I would not buy online. Bulky, heavy but inexpensive schools supplies being high on the list of “not good for online purchase”. I don’t even want to think about shipping on a ream of paper. Textbooks–heck yeah, I bought them online. Usually used and not infrequently an edition out of date. You just have to get all the information first (full title, author, edition and ideally ISBN number). But Target and Walmart haven’t figured out how to get in the textbook business.