Retail lessons from the back-to-school shopping season

by | Sep 29, 2016

School is back in session, and in some cases students have been back in their classrooms for a month or more. Yet straggling consumers are just now finishing their lists, and the back-to-school shopping has been going on since just a few weeks after the last school year ended. Due to changes in the retail landscape, the back-to-school shopping season now spans most of the third quarter, from July through September.

At the end of it all, the National Retail Federation estimates that consumers will have spent around $75.8 billion on back-to-school shopping. Unlike other needs where consumers may “make do” with what they have, school supplies are items shoppers will stock up on to make it through the year. Additionally, demand for hot-ticket items, such as leggings, retro sneakers, versatile laptops and “cold-shoulder” shirts has helped to push back-to-school spending to its fastest growth in four years. Parents expect to spend an average of $673.57 on electronics, clothes, pencils and art supplies this year, compared with $630.36 last year.

With that kind of spending going on, retailers that were paying attention to what kids and parents want will win the season.

How back-to-school shopping has changed

The causes of the shift in shopping are not particularly surprising. E-commerce, mobile devices, Amazon Prime Day and the increase in prepackaged school supply kits available directly from schools have made it incredibly easy for parents and students to have school supplies delivered to their homes instead of wandering through a store. Additionally, if they do plan on going to a store, more consumers are using technology to research their purchases and find the best deals.

Amazon has helped transform the definition of retail, so of course it’s also altered how school shopping is done. On it’s Amazon Prime Day shopping holiday this year, some of the top selling items were shoes, laptops, tablets and USB drives. Additionally, according to data released recently by Google, back-to-school search queries such as “book bag” rose sharply the week of July 11 – the same week that Amazon Prime Day was held. That’s a full week earlier than such searches started trending in 2015,

Mobile devices have also had a measurable impact on back-to-school shopping. According to Google, three out of five back-to-school-related Google searches initiated in July originated on mobile devices. That’s up more than 35 percent from 2015.

How retailers can adapt and compete

Retailers need to step up their game to compete in the new back-to-school shopping landscape. Some retailers responded to Amazon Prime Day by pushing bigger promotions earlier in the shopping season, such as Macy’s “Black Friday in July” promotions. Another way retailers can take advantage of foot traffic traffic to brick-and-mortar stores is to enroll consumers in loyalty programs to drive additional purchases throughout the year.

According to Deloitte, though, the way to make the most of next year’s back-to-school shopping season is to make online sales a priority. According to the Back-to-School Survey 2016:

  • 40 percent of shoppers prefer to purchase from retailers that offer an option to buy online and pick up in-store.
  • 30 percent will shop physical stores less this year because the option to buy online and pick up in-store is more convenient.
  • 62 percent say they are more likely to buy from online retailers who offer free shipping.

The back-to-school season is the second most important season for retailers, with the upcoming winter holiday season being the first. The shopping patterns of back-to-school buying offer a picture of what’s ahead in the next few months. The information we collected above indicates that the upcoming holiday season will probably be quite big, and what motivates shoppers is going to be similar to what’s motivating them now.

Did your back-to-school season make the grade this year? Prep for the next year by enhancing your omnichannel strategy, growing your assortment and streamlining your drop shipping. Contact SPS Commerce today to get started!

Sara Duane

Content Marketing Manager at SPS Commerce
Sara Duane is a content expert for the SPS Commerce marketing team. She provides valuable articles and important information about e-commerce, merchandising strategies, order fulfillment and other topics related to retail supply chain optimization.
Sara Duane

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