How to Market to College Students By Marketing to Their Parents

When retailers and brands focus on marketing to college students, they must not forget that parents, too, spend big when Junior goes off to college. However, they spend differently than their kids do, and their distinct shopping habits require a distinct marketing strategy.

Parents are shopping to help their kids first, save money second

An annual study of student and parent spending habits by Deloitte found that:

  • 16% of parents expect their kids to cover half of their back-to-school supply costs
  • 65% of parents expected to spend less on traditional school supplies
  • 44% expected to spend money on tech supplies
  • Parents expected to do the majority of their shopping in brick-and-mortar stores
  • Parents still research products online, just like their kids

In short, parents are more likely to show up in person at an Apple store to outfit their kids for college than they are to order notebooks or pencils on Amazon.

Parents are also looking for more deals, according to the National Retail Federation:

  • 30% of parents surveyed “planned to shop sales more often” when it came to back-to-school for 2016
  • 27% planned to buy generic or store brands
  • 21% planned to use coupons

Other experts note that parents want to find ways to connect with their kids while they’re at school. Freshmen all-nighters at school and early business hours back home for mom and dad may not make phone calls easy, and parents still want to give their kids the privacy and independence they crave.

So, what can retailers do?

Appeal to their caring side. While the kids may want to see a grabby video of GoPro surfers, parents may respond better to emotional appeals at a time when their feelings are running high. The kids are off to college. How do you keep them safe? How do you make sure they’re well fed, clothed, and cared for, if they’ve never been on their own before? Such messages, says one advertising professor, can hit home.

Offer coupons and discounts. If major retail survey shows that more parents are actively seeking discounts and plan to use coupons, then consider giving parents exactly what they’re looking for. When parents research goods online, advertising discounts for them could help them find you.

Don’t give up if August has come and gone and you haven’t posted discounts yet. Several outlets report that parents are waiting longer to make purchases, especially if they think they can get a deal.

Establish registries. The Container Store, Target, and other major retailers that sell dorm gear have launched online registries to help students shop for school. Students can register their wish lists then send them to parents and relatives. The chains are large enough that the older generation may live near a store, giving them the option to shop in person or just order online.

Offer subscription services. We’ve discussed before how Amazon’s Prime delivery service offers deals for students. Target does this as well, aiming for the student market, as the Chicago Tribune notes. Parents worried that Johnny won’t remember to buy new toothpaste, or that June won’t keep the 409 bottles stocked, can help support them by setting up automatic deliveries.

Create care packages. Some colleges and universities already offer parents a chance to buy goodies to send to the dorm. Healthy snack food options seem to please both parents and kids, according to marketing guru Michal Clements.

“While at school, many parents and other adult family members (such as grandparents, aunts and uncles) want to support the young adult student’s success and provide non-intrusive support while encouraging independence and separation,” Clements writes. “It’s a tough balance, as anyone who has gone through it knows.”

Retailers could put together pre-made packages of snacks, winter gear or study materials that parents can use to stay connected to their children without crossing any boundaries.

By marketing to parents, brands get backdoor access to the next generation of consumers without having to worry about cutting-edge trends. Parents aren’t worried about cool. They just want to support their kids, at the best price possible.

While parents shell out for pricey electronics and care packages, students are buying shoes and snacks online. Fill out this form to download a breakdown of what students are buying online and why.