How 2021 changed student shopping and spending for 2022

Thursday 17 March 2022, UCAS advice

How 2021 changed student shopping and spending for 2022

Nicola McClymont, Senior Commercial Sales Manager, UCAS

It’s a new age for student marketing, as Gen Z shrewdness forces brands to rethink advertising and authenticity.

One of the things that makes working with students so challenging and fascinating is the lightning-quick pace of change. On an almost yearly basis, we see entire decision-making strategies come and go, as each new intake brings young people from all over the world and from every socioeconomic status. Add a global pandemic to that, or a widespread cultural movement like Black Lives Matter, and you’ve got a crucible for change that dwarfs anything we’ve seen before.

That’s why this year’s UCAS Freshers Report has been both a revelation and revolution to work on – with so many changes in so many aspects of student life. We spoke to more than 7,000 students to find out how the events of the past year have changed the way that they’re going to shop and spend over the next year and beyond.

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As we approach the new financial year and you get ready to sign-off your 22/23 budgets, there are some things you ought to know if you’re hoping to market to students.


Influencers and advertising need much more careful consideration

When we asked students what mattered most about brands, it’s what mattered least that was so telling. Advertising, marketing, and endorsement from celebrities/influencers were seen as the least important factors when choosing a brand. Which is exactly why we focus our energy on student insight, so that we can help you be one of the few that gets student marketing right.

Now these findings might feel at odds with the influencer age we’re living in, where marketing campaigns are notable for how viral they go, and how big advertising events like the Superbowl can entirely change the fortunes of a brand. But remember that whilst Gen Z might be the group with the most social commentary, there are still only around 13 million of them in the UK. Less than half of these are of buying age, and fewer still are students. 

They need to be considered in their own right – so different and changeable are their habits, and so behaviourally disconnected they are from the rest of the market. Advertising, marketing, and influencers are far from irrelevant to this audience – they are just rarely executed effectively.

Honesty, integrity, and authenticity is the new currency

Just as so many students have the nous to see through promotional campaigns, they also have an excellent detector for corporate tones of voice and can easily identify when a brand is pretending to be something it’s not. It’s no surprise that terms like ‘greenwashing’ and ‘virtue signalling’ have come to prominence during the Gen Z era.

Students have walked away from purchases in the past year because of animal testing, staff working conditions or pay, unsustainable practices, and non-recyclable packaging. They’ve also stopped using social media networks based on their privacy policies, users projecting unrealistic positive images of themselves, fake news, unmoderated offensive posts, and over-policing of the wrong people.

Whilst previous generations might have been able to look the other way for the sake of a bargain, today’s student wants transgressions held to account – no matter who the person or how big the business. They want honesty, integrity, and authenticity to be the currency of brand loyalty – and they’re willing to make sacrifices in pursuit of it.


Freshers are spending more money, more selectively

This one was surprising to us too. In year three of a global pandemic (amidst furloughing, redundancies, and a potential economic downturn) students have broken spending records for the third consecutive year. And it’s nothing to do with inflation, their spending outpaces that by 7:1.

But they’re also behaving very differently to their predecessors. It might not be prudent to label them ‘big spenders’ in the traditional sense of the term. It’s not brand new designer clothing (Vinted and eBay are massively popular this year), it’s not fancy restaurants (80% eat at home almost every day), and it’s definitely not down to the Amazon spree that everybody else went on in 2020 (as Gen Z were the only group in the world to spend less than the year before.) 

Instead, we know that this year two-thirds of all students invested in kitchenware and homeware – a sudden 10% growth after years of falling. We know that Netflix, Prime, and Disney+ are growing their streaming subscriptions with students year-on-year-on-year. And we know that Dunelm rose 142 places to break into the top 100 student brands for the first time ever. These are not indulgent or gratuitous purchases, but they amount to considerable spending nonetheless, and perhaps offer new opportunities for brands which didn’t consider themselves prime student targets before.

To find out more about student spending and shopping, plus 30+ pages of behavioural analysis, download the UCAS Freshers Report 2022.

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