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More students back-to-school shopping online as retailers embrace mobile

TORONTO — Students are flocking online for their back-to-school buys — and they're starting early.

Google consumer surveys found that 26 per cent of post-secondary-aged Canadian students said they'll be shopping more for back-to-school items this year compared to 2014. What's more, 20 per cent planned to be finished the task a month before school starts, while 55 per cent will be wrapped up by Labour Day.

Back-to-school searches on mobile devices have surged, doubling from 2013 to 2014 and increasing more than 50 per cent in 2015 compared to the same time period last year.

The popularity of how-tos and "haul" videos — where individuals showcase newly purchased goods — have helped further enhance the consumer experience online.

More than 5.6 million hours of haul videos were watched online in 2014. Canadians searched for "back to school haul" 20 per cent more than Americans last year.

"Historically, digital was a limited experience for consumers," said Rafe Petkovic, head of industry, retail at Google Canada.

"Video is introducing the value of sight, sound, motion, authentic reviews. You know which people you trust so you can really lean into those different experiences to help you make authoritative decisions on where you want to buy those products as well."

The web is also proving to be fertile ground for seeking information about products to buy in-store or online.

Google said 48 per cent of Canadian smartphone users say they're making purchase decisions faster now compared to a few years ago because they're researching on their devices. Within an hour of an original mobile search, 75 per cent of "conversions" take place, such as calls, downloads, store visits and purchases.

Chris Hodgson, Google Canada's head of retail and tech sectors, said consumers are increasingly more purposeful when they shop, due partly to time constraints and the ease of online browsing. As a result, retailers need to ensure their digital storefronts have the information and inventory customers are seeking.

"If you can find a company who says: 'Here's a product, it's available in this store, and here's the price and it meets your criteria,' you will go that store," said Hodgson.

"(If) a competing company doesn't have the stock availability, can't tell you if it's there, doesn't have the price on its website, you're far less likely to actually convert and buy from that retailer."

Canadian Tire is attempting to fuse traditional with tech in its debut "showcase" store in Edmonton. The test location features more than 100 digital screens, digital flyer access, a car simulator to test drive tires in different weather conditions, and a dedicated drive-thru to pick-up e-commerce purchases.

A digital app launched last year allowing customers to manage electronic Canadian Tire money and search for product information and store locations. It's picked up more than 2.5 million downloads.

"Our customers are increasingly more mobile," said TJ Flood, Canadian Tire senior vice-president of marketing.

"We need to continue to be on the cutting edge of what we provide from a digital standpoint."

Lauren La Rose, The Canadian Press

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