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.
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.