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

More parents than ever will turn to the Web this year for back to school shopping, but STELLAService found that for those basic items to fill a backpack, the online experience doesn’t earn an easy “A.”

The National Retail Federation projects that $83.8 billion will be spent this year in the U.S. on K-12 back-to-school shopping. And, two out of five back-to-school-shoppers will shop online, equaling some $33.5 billion in online sales. The number of projected online shoppers has nearly doubled since 2007, when closer to one in five ventured on to the web.

STELLAService wanted to compare the overall experiences of shopping online versus shopping in-store. As a company that champions ecommerce, we expected the online experience to be smoother – greater selection, an easier path to checkout and fast, efficient delivery. But, we found there’s still plenty of room for online retailers to improve if they want to best their brick-and-mortar business.

With a typical back-to-school shopping list, STELLAService shopped the online stores of Target, Wal-Mart, Costco, Staples, Office Max and Office Depot. Three orders were placed for each retailer to be delivered to three regions in the U.S. STELLAService also partnered with mystery shopping firm ICC/Decision Services to shop identical lists in the same regions at brick-and-mortar locations of the six retailers.

Here’s an overview of what STELLAService found in regards to service, time invested, price and selection for both the online and offline experiences.


Looking at a month-long period from June 15 to July 15, customer service agents from four retailers – Target, Office Depot, Staples and Office Max – managed to answer service calls in less than two minutes. Only Office Depot and Staples offer live chat, clocking average times to an agent at 36 seconds and 2 minutes, respectively.

Only one retailer, Wal-Mart, was able to respond to email questions within 2 days 100 percent of the time. The rest of the pack’s ability to respond within two days ranged from 58 percent to 87 percent on average. 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. This month-long sample of data includes an average of 26 email interactions for each retailer.

Overall, in-store service was accessible, friendly and helpful. For instance, after noting the items in the shopper’s cart, an employee at an east coast Office Depot went the extra mile by asking if the shopper was a teacher. He then escorted the shopper to the proper aisle and made helpful product suggestions.

If consumers find themselves with product questions or suggestions, sending an email is going to be far less efficient than simply finding an in-store associate. However, STELLAService found that live chat and phone proved to be fast, effective channels for finding answers to simple product and store policy questions.


The average shopping time online was around 10 minutes, while shopping in-store took about 30 minutes—not including travel time.

In addition, the study debunked one of the classic frustrations of shopping during a busy season, namely waiting on line at checkout. STELLAService found that there was a negligible difference in time spent on line at the six stores and time spent completing the online checkout process. Online shoppers longed for the one-click checkout they have become used to from sites like and found themselves frustrated with the tedious process of entering billing and shipping information. Improvements in this process could add to ecommerce’s edge in shopping time.

However, the in-store shopping experience enables shoppers to walk away with items in-hand, while online orders took an average of four days for delivery.

There were also inconveniences in the shipping process, including single orders that were shipped piecemeal, in separate boxes and over several days. An order of 13 items from Wal-Mart arrived at one shopper’s home in five boxes over the course of 8 days.

No shopper expressed any frustration with crowds at the brick-and-mortar retail sites. However, shoppers were less than pleased with the accessibility of items in the stores. While shoppers appreciated special sections devoted to back-to-school items, they still found themselves roaming the aisles for desired products. In a survey of the experience, one shopper wrote, “Many items were in the ‘school section,’ while some were in the nearby ‘art section.’ 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.”

Still, an extra 20 minutes of shopping from the couch versus shopping inside a busy store may be an attractive option for consumers. But, that comfort comes at a cost.


With many households tightening their budgets, price has emerged as one the most important factors in deciding where and how to shop. The 13 items on the shopping list included: large erasers, blue ballpoint pens, No. 2 pencils, a composition notebook, 1-inch 3-ring binder, crayons, construction paper, index cards, calculator, markers, two-pocket folders, glue stick and a ruler.

One of the more glaring differences between shopping online and shopping in-store was the amount spent. The average price in-store was $31 compared to $53 for the average online order. The lowest price paid for all the items was $24.97 in-store at Office Depot.

Of course, shipping cost factored into that discrepancy, but did not account for it in full: the average shipping cost was about $10 dollars. While there are also transportation costs associated with shopping in stores, they are likely less significant than the cost of shipping.


Ecommerce is celebrated for having a much wider selection than what’s available on the shelves of your local stores. With the exception of bulk retailer Costco and, stores had a sufficient selection of items and shoppers were able to complete their shopping lists. Shoppers had difficulty finding most of the items on their list at Costco, and those available needed to be purchased in larger quantities. For example, three boxes of blue ballpoint pens was the minimum quantity allowed for an online order. Shoppers also ran into trouble finding items on, as the retailers does not offer most of the items on the list online. You would need to go out to a Target near you to buy a box of 12 blue ballpoint pens, while Office Depot has 74 different types of blue ballpoint pens for sale online.

What Target lacked in online performance, they made up for in a high quality in-store shopping experience: Every item on the shopping list could be found in two neighboring aisles, except for a calculator, which was located in the electronics section.

Obviously seeing the online potential for this annual shopping event, retailers are showing a commitment to improving the back-to-school shopping experience. Excluding Costco, every retailer in the study has created special back-to-school sections of their online stores that can be sorted by grade level. Wal-Mart even provides an advice section. An article linked on the back-to-school section titled “Best bets for back-to-school backpacks” provides this helpful tip for parents of toddlers and preschoolers, “Since your little one isn’t carrying heavy books or homework, opt for something small and lightweight. There should be enough room for lunch, snacks, and a favorite toy.”

Wal-Mart has also instituted a program called Classrooms by Walmart that enables teachers to digitally submit their classroom supply lists for shoppers to find via a simple search box.  The site also gives parents the option of having supplies shipped to their homes or held for pick-up at a Wal-Mart store.

It’s these types of initiatives that can move a retailer to the head of the class.

So, Where Should You Shop?

After shopping these classic back-to-school outlets online and on-foot and stress testing their customer service channels, STELLAService found ELITE-rated Office Depot offered the best back to school shopping experience. With a pleasant in-store experience, on-time and well-packaged deliveries, praiseworthy online customer service, and competitive pricing, Office Depot was an obvious choice to be our recommendation for parents setting out to get their kids ready for school this school year.

Here’s how:

One of only two companies that offer live chat support, Office Depot was able to reach STELLAService analysts fastest, posting in an average wait time of 36 seconds.

On the phone, Office Depot’s total time to live agent average was a swift 1 minute 23 seconds, second only to Target at 1 minute 12 seconds.

With an average of $35.60 for in-store sales and an average of $38.20 online, Office Depot showed that providing great service doesn’t have to cost a fortune. The retailer bested all others in the study in the price category.

Most notable, from STELLAService’s point of view, was consistency of friendly, proactive, accessible customer service across the Office Depot online and brick-and-mortar properties. In all three regions, shoppers noted that customer service agents were actively interested in giving the customer the best shopping experience possible.

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