Parents who back-to-school shop online are missing out, psychologists say

Alexandra Mondalek

Shopping in a Zara store recently while on vacation in New York City, a mother and her teenage daughter were sorting through fall wardrobe essentials they’d pulled from the racks.

The duo, Carol and Christina, of Lafayette, Ind., compared two miniskirts, one checkered and one suede, for length; examined a wool cardigan for holes or snags; and debated whether or not a faux leather jacket was worth its $70 price tag (Carol, the mom and the one footing the bill, said it wasn’t).

But the mother-daughter tag team won’t do all of their back-to-school shopping during their New York City visit. Once they’re back in Indiana, the duo will do the rest of their shopping all in-store, at their go-to spots, TJ Maxx and Kohl’s.

After all, the in-store shopping experience for the back-to-school season is a powerful one, and not just for this family. The National Retail Federation found that in 2016, 46 percent of families shopped their back-to-school needs in-store — a 30 percent increase from the previous year. That directly combats the idea that online shopping (see: Amazon) is taking over the world.

Ana Serafin Smith, senior director of media relations for the National Retail Federation, says just because some people might start looking for clothes and supplies online, the in-store experience is “definitely not” going anywhere.

That also means the back-to-school bonding experience for parents and kids isn’t going anywhere either. In fact, it’s such a mainstay that researchers were sought out to formally examine what it is about those excursions that bring families together — or in some cases, create some unforgettable arguments.

In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, researchers interviewed more than two dozen mothers, adolescent daughters, and retail employees across the country to figure out what happens during mother-daughter shopping trips. The findings confirm the experiences of many who can relate to years of arguing in fitting rooms over too-loud stores, too-short hemlines, and too-pricey garments.

The process, according to the research team, is as follows: moms and daughters argue over authority and autonomy, they learn from each other, and moms influence how daughters shop. And then, if all goes well, it winds up being worth it, as the two bond over the shared experience.

“Both mothers and daughters talked about the mother-daughter shopping trip as an opportunity to spend quality girl-time together, especially when their lives might otherwise be too busy to facilitate such time,” the researchers found. (To be sure, this study didn’t examine how fathers interact with their daughters or sons, though there are plenty of dads doing the shopping themselves.)

For Laura Markham, a Brooklyn-based clinical psychologist and author of several books on parenting, the researchers’ findings confirm much of what she sees herself.

“Shopping itself is not a value we want to promote with kids, but we do want to promote this idea of finding quality or never buying something you don’t love or take care of,” Markham tells Yahoo Style. “Within the framework of boundaries or budgets or values, shopping can be a real learning opportunity for parents and their children.”

While some parents might enjoy the ease of one-click shopping for their school-age children, others see what some psychologists do: There’s a learning experience to be shared no matter what you end up taking home.

I wouldn’t do any of the shopping online,” says Pam, a mother in the Boston area. “I like having the experience, even with three kids.”

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Alexandra Mondalek is a writer for Yahoo Style + Beauty. Follow her on Twitter @amondalek.