There are two challenges when trying to market to college students: understanding what they want, and understanding how Generation Z shops. Understanding these challenges and the solutions to address them are critical to building a strong marketing strategy. To better understand this, we consulted with UNiDAYS, a publisher that works exclusively with college shoppers, to understand how college students shop and how Gen Z is different from their predecessors, Millennials.

With students wrapping up summer and returning to the classroom, back to school shopping is winding down. But while K-12 students may be wrapping up, college students are just getting started with their spending. As college students return to campus this fall, their school needs aren’t limited to just this time of the year. The college shopper – the oldest of Generation Z, the Centennials – have many different needs, behaviors, and shopping trends than the traditional student. Namely: their needs last year-round and are changing based on the time of the year.

It’s no secret that back to school shopping season is the second biggest shopping period of the year. Interestingly, back to college shoppers contribute a majority of that. NRF data shows that back to college shoppers will make up about 64% of the total amount of money spent during this shopping period with a projected $54.1 billion dollars spent on back to college spending 2017. That’s likely due to how much back to college shoppers have to spend. Students (and their families) are planning to spend $969.88 on average this year for back to college shopping. This is up from 2016, which was an average of $888.71.

But that’s just the beginning of the year. College shopping doesn’t end at the start of the semester – it’s something that continues throughout the year and changes. College shoppers are also a huge opportunity for marketers if they’re willing to understand this new generation of shoppers and behaviors.

To better understand Gen Z college shoppers, we interviewed Marisa Allan, the VP of Partner Innovation at UNiDAYS (SID: 3298060). Through its Student Affinity Network, UNiDAYS offers exclusive programs and incentives for college students to shop brands, services, experiences, and products. Allan was able to provide insights on Gen Z shopping trends and college shopping behaviors.

Getting Started: College Shoppers, Gen Z, and Shopping Behaviors 

There are a few major differences between Gen Z/college shoppers and other consumers that impact how marketers should view them.

One major difference is how Gen Z approaches their shopping. Gen Z students differ from the Millennial generation. According to Allan, “they have more money than Millennials did when entering college, [and] Gen Z are savvier [shoppers].”

Gen Z is likely using money from their own pocket combined with money from their parents to fund their shopping during the college semesters. Gen Z also has the benefit of an economy that’s not suffering from a recession the same way that Millennials were when they went to college.

As for being savvier shoppers, this means that brands and marketers looking to capture Gen Z shoppers will have to meet them on their level. According to Allan, Gen Z shoppers prioritize two things in their shopping: “great value and brands that have a purpose beyond just selling.”

When thinking about something like “back to college” shopping, marketers need to be aware that this encompasses the traditional B2S period, but it’s not the only time that college shoppers are shopping. College shoppers have varying needs that change throughout the season. A new laptop may be critical in the fall, but shopping for Spring Break clothes may be on the top of a college student’s purchase list in the spring. And food will always be needed.

“Many people tend to think that Gen Z is only shopping during peak back to school season, but that’s a misconception,” Allan explained. “While [the tradition back to school shopping period] is peak season, we see our student members shopping year-round when brands are giving them the best offers. It’s the classic notion of right content or offer, right place, right time.

“For Gen Z, browsing is ongoing throughout the year but does spike around the traditional back to school and holiday seasons,” Allan continued. Shopping, she shared, is a year-round activity. College students need things year-round, and the traditional back to school shopping period may not cover all their bases and needs.

And what exactly are college shoppers looking for? Allan gave us some insights into that as well.

What College Students/Gen Z Shoppers Want

College students are in an interesting position when it comes to shopping. They have less total money than Millennials by comparison but have more disposable income to spend on non-essential items. They don’t have utilities, a mortgage/rent, kids, and other routine payments that prevent Millennials from spending the ways that Gen Z shoppers are able to do.

And what is the Gen Z college student spending their money on?

“Big areas are technology, fashion, and footwear,” Allan observed. “[Gen Z shoppers] are also spending money on things that many assume they don’t have money for, like travel and experiences.”

Consider this: every Spring Break there are thousands of college students who flock to resorts and travel destinations. Those trips require airfare, lodging, and possibly meal and drink packages. The college students may want to spend extra money on excursions or experiences while they’re at their destination to enhance their trip further. They also usually give the college student an incentive to buy new clothes for the trip, and maybe splurge on things like a new camera. Students can afford this because they have less financial requirements and, sometimes, support from their parents. This is only one example, but there are similar opportunities year-round for brands to capitalize on.

This doesn’t mean, however, that college students are tossing money around. Just the opposite in fact. College students are being savvy about their shopping by looking for the best possible deals. They’re loyal to the best value they can find, not one particular brand or website. This is a key observation that Allan shared with us, and it’s important because it means that your brand has the opportunity to connect with Gen Z shoppers, even if they haven’t shopped your brand before.

There’s more than just deals being considered by Gen Z college students. “Gen Z is inspired by images that they see on social media, by key events, trends, friends, influencers, and so on,” Allan noted when asked what motivated a Gen Z college student shopper to find and select a brand. Additionally, when it comes to what they wear, the tech they use, it’s about the context of the environment they are using it in. Meaning, Gen Z doesn’t care as much about the logo on their shirt, it’s what they are doing with their friends when they take that selfie and share it. Brands and services are an accessory to their lifestyle, not their identity – this is a big shift from  Gen X and older millennials that were coming of age while on Sex and the City and Entourage.

Allan described this Gen Z’s effort to develop their “personal brand”. For example, shopping for dorm room decorations can be a huge motivator for a college student to shop different brands and try different products that can represent their individuality. Their priority, however, is staying within budget. “Gen Z shoppers have more choices than ever before, and because of this, they have the luxury of being highly selective in that search to find merchandise that represents them while at a great value. Competition for the student wallet is fierce and ensuring that brands are communicating value and purpose is more critical than ever when looking to set themselves apart.”

Connecting with College Students and Centennials

Gen Zers are today’s college students, but tomorrow’s major demographic. Just as Millennials once shook up the marketing landscape, Centennials are primed to do the same. That’s why it’s critical that marketers use the current opportunity to start understanding Gen Z shoppers while they’re college students. Doing so can build the foundation for a solid marketing strategy for Centennials, as well as pave the way for Gen Z shoppers to build some loyalty and brand recognition towards a company.

What can companies do to get started with marketing to college students? The first thing, according to Allan, is to understand how these shoppers research.

“While Gen Z as a generation still likes to shop in store and touch and feel things, digital/mobile is where [college students] research, comparison shopping and discover trends,” Allan explained.

Knowing that college students still like the physical, in-store shopping experience because of their like to “touch and feel” products is a big benefit to those that have brick and mortar shops. They can use this opportunity to better understand what type of in-store shopping experience Gen Zers want, and make adjustments to cater to their shopping needs. Likewise, if a brand doesn’t have a storefront, that’s okay too – there’s plenty of opportunities to reach college shoppers as they research and compare. Using the affiliate channel to reach college shoppers during these phases can help immensely in capturing their business.

Additionally, Allan advised that brands need to be prepared to make moves that drive engagement but also be prepared to respond to a Centennial’s shopping behavior.

“Brands should look for every opportunity to be both proactive and reactive when it comes to engaging in digital conversations with Gen Z,” she explained. “With an 8-second average to capture Gen Z’s finicky attention span, it’s never been more critical to keep your digital footprint fresh.”

How can brands keep their “footprint fresh” in the eyes of a college student? Allan had the answer for us.

“Monitoring social media and content curation platforms like Pinterest and Instagram to see how your brand fits into larger trends is key. Moreover, being present on Gen-Z community platforms like UNiDAYS, where students are actually seeking value and looking to make purchases, is key to winning Gen Z’s hearts and wallets.”

With more flexibility in their budget for spending, as well as a year-round need for different products and services, this is a great opportunity for marketers to explore and understand a new generation of consumers. College shoppers and Gen Z shoppers are synonymous right now, but soon the first wave of Centennials will be in the workforce and making more purchasing choices. Understanding this demographic today can help connect brands and shoppers in the long term, but doing so will take work and understanding.