Q&A—Online back-to-school shopping up 75%

Traditional in-store school shopping is on a decline, for a variety of reasons.

While summer is just starting, retailers and consumers area already gearing up for the back-to-school season. In the last five years, online back-to-school shopping sales have increased more than 75%. With this trend continuing, Yahoo looked at search and mobile insights to help marketers reach consumers from the start of their shopping journey.

Some of the results show that almost 50% of all BTS purchases happen in July and August. However, consumers will shop to the bitter end, as the busiest day for bargain hunting in 2016 was Sunday, Aug. 14 (more than 660% above the daily average).

As with mobile shopping in all categories, the hunt for BTS products on mobile rose 34% in 2016 and shoppers were most likely to search for apparel than any other category on their mobile devices.

FierceRetail spoke with Courtney McKlveen, a Yahoo spokesperson, to learn more about what to expect from this year’s BTS shopping habits.

Headshot of Yahoo spokesperson,  Courtney McKlveen.
Courtney McKlveen

FierceRetail (FR): Why do you think consumer spending on BTS has gone up so much in the past few years?

Courtney McKlveen (CM): Online shopping has really boosted back-to-school spending over the past few years. According to eMarketer, consumer spending has increased by more than 75% since 2012 for back-to-school items. For parents and students that are short on time, online shopping offers greater convenience to research and purchase items that are specific to their needs, instead of planning a trip to the store. What’s more, expanded curriculum and specialty classes have contributed to consumer spending on back-to-school items, increasing by 14% since 2012.

FR: Why do so many consumers wait until the last minute to shop BTS? Are they looking for the greatest bargain or is it something else?

CM: Overall, we’re seeing that the consumer shopping journey is longer and they spend more time researching before making a final purchase. Deals also play a significant role for bargain-hunters and these consumers are willing to wait for the best deals.

FR: What can retailers do to encourage consumers to shop prior to the last minute and throughout the summer?

CM: Searches for back-to-school deals spike during July and August, but according to our latest research, consumers are searching for deals during winter break as well. Rather than focusing only on the summer back-to-school season, marketers can plan relevant, impactful campaigns during other key shopping moments throughout the year. By making their campaigns more data-driven, brands can create targeted native ad experiences across mobile and desktop devices.

FR: Do you suspect that BTS shopping via mobile will be up again this year? And is it students shopping more on mobile or their parents?

CM: Yes! Mobile is poised to play an even greater role for BTS shoppers because it’s become such an important part of a consumer’s path to purchase. From January to December, the percentage of back-to-school deal searches conducted on mobile increased by 500%. With the convenience of mobile research and shopping for on-the-go parents and students alike, it’s essential for marketers to deploy cross-platform campaigns. Keep in mind that millennials are mobile-first consumers and many are becoming parents who use this device as their first stop when shopping for back-to-school items.

FR: What do you suspect will be different when it comes to trends in BTS this year?

CM: While omnichannel marketing isn’t a new term, this year marketers are making an even greater investment and truly bringing the promise of omnichannel to life. It's a change in thinking for many retail marketers in how they execute. Starting with data to build campaigns based on consumer insights makes it possible for retailers to reach consumers on the right device, with the right message, at the right time.

FR: How can marketers cut through all of the BTS clutter and reach shoppers?

CM: Parents and students have the entire summer to consider and purchase BTS items, so marketers need to get their message in front of potential customers during the consideration phase. Our research shows that consumers begin their research phase well before the peak-shopping season, so marketers need to be thinking longer-term than just August and September. That way, when consumers are ready to make a decision, there’s a higher likelihood that they will visit a store or purchase an item online after seeing an ad days or weeks before.

FR: What else can you tell us about BTS 2017?

CM: The notion of back-to-school has expanded. Overall, retail marketers are starting their back-to-school marketing efforts earlier to get in front of the peak shopping times and influence spending for in market shoppers this summer. Savvy marketers want to engage their best customers by delivering targeted messaging in the leadup to purchase, and that will impact consumer choices this season.