Back-to-school shopping is underway—and we checked our youth brand tracker to see what college students are thinking about buying right now…
College students are heading to campuses—where brands are hoping to turn them into early loyalists. For years, brands have deployed college ambassador programs to use the power of word-of-mouth on campus as a marketing tool. And now, according to Fashionista, brands are actually recruiting college students to be influencers. Whether to bring in some revenue or to build out their resumes, more college-goers are teaming up with brands to influence their friends and followers’ purchase decisions. Victoria’s Secret and Rent the Runway both have popular, unpaid programs that let ambassadors score free products and attend events in exchange for promotional posts. Other up-and-coming influencers are taking the lead on their own, pitching their college connections to brands for one-off deals. The Cut reports that Tinder and Bumble are even sponsoring fraternity parties to compete for 18-24-year-old users. Clearly, the college student demographic is a group of in-demand shoppers. So what brands are they planning to shop for this season?
According to our back-to-school shopping research, college students are most likely to start to think about their BTS purchases in August and early September. We also keep tabs on what brands they’re thinking of buying: YPulse’s youth brand tracker surveys over 81,000 13-37-year-olds annually—and we can slice that data to look at the brand and shopping preferences for specific groups of young consumers, including college students. To see what their purchasing plans look like as they head to school, we looked at the top brands that 18-24-year-old undergraduate students say they plan to buy, use, or buy from. Here are the top 20 on that ranking right now:
Brands They’re Planning to Use/Buy
18-24-year-olds college students
- Bath & Body Works
- Heinz Ketchup
- Ben & Jerry’s
*YPulse’s youth brand tracker measures young consumers’ relationships with a brand based on a weighted 6-point scale, ranging from “Never heard of this brand” to “This brand is one of my favorites.” We also ask respondents “Which of the following would you USE, BUY, OR BUY FROM in the future?” These are the top brands that were rated as ones they would use, buy, or buy from, among those who are aware of the brand. The brands on this list are among the over 400 brands included in the brand tracker as of 9/3/2019. Rankings are subject to change as more brands are added and removed.
For anyone who wondered if Amazon had a Gen Z problem, it’s clear that they’re primed (sorry) and ready to be the go-to retailer of the next generation, landing at the top of the ranking of brands they plan to buy from. Amazon has made converting college students into Prime users a mission. For years, they’ve been setting up Amazon Lockers on college campuses, creating designated pickup locations for free same-day deliveries. At these shipping hubs, Amazon Prime Student users can pick up online orders or drop off items for return with help from an assigned employee. The convenient lockers are often next to bookstores and open for longer hours than the campus mailroom. These convenient campus locations aren’t the only way that Amazon is targeting college students: Chain Store Age reports that Amazon has an online store dedicated to college shopping, continuing their appeal to Gen Z shoppers. Their Off-to-College site promotes dorm room items curated by influencers and available for same-day pick up at stores near campuses. Textbooks are available to buy or rent (for big savings), and students can also trade in textbooks, video games, devices, and other items in exchange for Amazon gift cards—which will get them even more accustomed to shopping on the site. YPulse data also shows that Prime membership climbs significantly once young consumers hit the 18-24-year-old range, jumping from 28% among 13-17-year-olds to 47% among 21-24-year-olds.
Nike is second on the list of brands that college students plan to use/buy—showing that the casual and comfortable college campus athleisure uniform is continuing. Target is third on the list, scoring far higher than other brick-and-mortar-based retailers, including Walmart, which lands at number 13. Among female college students, Target actually ranked as the number one brand they plan to buy from. Since 2017, Target has been making shopping as easy as possible for college students, with tools to order items online and pick up at designated locations close to campuses. After an initial test rollout, they’re also planning to open more small-format stores on college campuses. The retailer is seeing success with scaling down, at colleges and in general. Adapting to the retail wasteland, they reportedly opened over one million square feet of tiny Targets and have 30 new stores planned for the next year. Their SVP explains to Supermarket News that the campus locations help them get in front of students who are often shopping on their own for the first time “so they become lifelong guests.”
Interestingly, college students are more likely than non-students to say that Target is a brand they plan to buy from:
That’s not the only difference we see between these two groups. College students are also more likely to say they’re planning to buy Nike, Netflix, Apple, and Chick-fil-A than non-students.
Speaking of Chick-fil-A, the brand is number six on the ranking of brands that college students plan to use/buy, despite their politically rocky past. Newsweek reports that even now, the fast food brand is having issues at the University of Kansas, where faculty is decrying the location of Chick-fil-A on campus and their involvement in student activities. But our ranking shows that even as some protest the brand, they continue to appeal to college students—who are clearly prioritizing product taste over brand politics. Chick-fil-A ranks above any other fast food chain on the ranking of brands they’re planning to use/buy—with McDonald’s the only other QSR brand in the top 20, at number 18.