What back-to-school figures can tell us about eCommerce trends

back to school buying

The back-to-school sales period has become the second biggest across the industry. Read on to see what current trends we can spot from this increasingly profitable area of eCommerce. 

When people think of the term “back to school” they usually think of lunchboxes, pencil cases and new school uniforms, but the number of people entering into college and university education has never been higher. Along with these figures, the retail numbers in July and August for everything from back-packs and bedding to laptops and tablets are going up year-on-year. 

All of this can mean only one thing for eCommerce vendors: take notice! Whether selling to teachers and educational establishments in bulk, or direct to consumer, this area of online sales is an area that you cannot ignore, and neither are the buying habits of those involved. This isn’t just B2B and B2C, but B2P and B2S (that’s parent and student!) who have certain deciding factors in their online vs in-store decisions.

Old dog, new tricks

At the start of July, a study conducted over US consumers indicated that their intention to purchase back-to-school products was very traditional; 62.2% said they would visit discount stores while 56.4% would also visit department stores. Surprisingly, only 35.6% intended to purchase online at some point, despite the obvious trends we see every day towards shopping online.

This was also supported by a Deloitte study  conducted in July, which suggested that parents were waiting longer to buy supplies as well as re-using most items, a figure which rose from 26% to 39% between 2011 and 2015. One of the key factors here is that, like most modern consumers, parents are constantly looking for the best deal all year round, so instead of waiting for the specific back-to-school buying period, they are well aware of the deals that occur on stationary, clothing and so on many times in a year.

Although traditional places of purchasing appeared to be the winner, once the figures started to roll in it seemed there was once again no escaping the digital age, as these predictions proved to be wrong and much more in keeping with the modern arena of commerce. According to the latest figures from eMarketer , 2015 has seen US consumers alone spend $50.17 billion online during the back-to-school shopping season – a 16% gain over the 2013 period. Clearly, the traditional sales periods no longer have the clout that they once did, and digital shopping habits started to take over with parents and students alike being much pickier. 

However, this doesn’t have to be a negative sign for next year – think of it as the perfect opportunity to connect your brick and mortar experience to your online store! Some retailers were expecting this; rich media messaging (RMM) was something advocated by Shalini Gupta of Iris Mobile in a recent interview . She explained: “During the back-to-school season, we’re getting a lot more personalized and targeted. We work with a lot of large retail brands, and for back-to-school, the types of offers and campaigns will likely be targeted to what that person’s needs are. 

“If we’re targeting moms, we know they’re driven to buy products based on sale prices—we’ve seen that behaviour over time. We know who she is, what she’s done in the past, and we can predictively say this is what she is going to do in the future. With someone younger, who is more engaged by style, we can send them a message saying, ‘Hey, this is a look-book for in-store back-to-school fashions for fall; come and check them out’.” Shalini highlighted that it is also useful to detect the exact type of mobile phone being used so that the message can be further tailored to include images, videos, links to your calendar apps or links to social media apps.

There is a huge difference in the type of campaign style, wording and content when it comes to parents and students, as they respond to different triggers. Knowing these differences is crucial to any mobile marketing success.

Technology talks

Another trend which has become increasingly intertwined with the back-to-school buying period is the take-up of technology. This is becoming more and more of a dominant purchase, especially with the younger, millennial student emerging into the market place and entering university and college. The notebook and pencil case are certainly redundant next to the tablet and laptop in the lecture theatre, according to recent research  conducted among US teens aged 13 - 17 and millennials aged 18 - 24 via Twitter polls in April 2015. As many as 76% intended to purchase new technology items including headphones and laptops this year, but it is the millennials here which can give eCommerce vendors the most insight.

Unsurprisingly, items of a higher price-point were more valued by millennials that teens, who preferred the cheaper products. Using headphones as an example, which was the highest polling item, saw 40% of teens register their intention to buy, while millennials were 29%; in contrast to that, 20% of millennials would buy laptops, while only 15% of teens would do so. What is important to note here is that these results are in reference to those who would use their own money, rather than relying on a parent. 

We have already talked about how to target the parents with rich messaging, but this just proves how strong a group of buyers the millennials are: a young group of people willing to spend more if they find the right deal. It is down to adopting the right eCommerce and marketing strategies in order to reap the rewards of this shift. The teens may be less likely to spend their pennies on more high-end products, but the fact that they do consider it should speak volumes about the kind of consumer they will turn into – reliant on technology, confident with mobile and also seeking the right price from research.


Not only is the back-to-school buying period representative of this shift towards the self-education of the consumer via online research, the on-the-go consumer with no time for lengthy shopping trips, and the emerging consumer group of youngsters who don’t mind spending their pennies on high-priced products, but it indicates the absolutely crucial need for mobile optimisation.

We are seeing an increasing emphasis on this as a deciding factor in whether customer decides to continue browsing with you, or return to your site once the reach a desktop and wish to complete their purchase. Just as a badly designed and badly navigated desktop site is seen as a black mark on your credibility these days, it is becoming more and more the case with mobile optimisation also. Customers expect a great mobile experience, and back-to-school shoppers are no different.

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