Back to School: Retailers Heavy-Up on Search, Social and Video Efforts

  |  August 19, 2009   |  Comments

Teens and moms are spending less this year. A look at how JCPenney, Sears, and the rest are trying to engage them.

Back to school used to mean new Trapper Keepers, backpacks and lunchboxes, but now it also means new Web sites, Facebook applications and online videos from retailers who want to pique the interest of the moms and teens who do the bulk of the shopping.

It's a dizzying array of Web applications that often feature young stars and can make even the most recent college grads feel old and out of touch. But this is where teens, tweens, and even some moms are doing their research and where retailers are targeting their efforts this season.

According to data from Google Insights for Search, searches for back to school clothing started earlier this year and are growing more rapidly than in previous years.

Sara Kleinberg, head of retail marketing at Google, says back to school searches are up across the board this year, but searches for "school clothes" in particular are up close to 20 percent over last year.

That's in part because economic conditions have forced consumers to be more careful with their purchases. And because they want to be more prepared, they are spending more time researching where to get the best deals, Kleinberg says.

To be sure, searches for the term "coupon" are up 40 percent over last year; searches "buy one get one free" are up 30 percent; and "free shipping" searches are up 20 percent.

"Especially this year... search is the place [consumers are] going to research that purchase decision and get the confidence to make that purchase," Kleinberg says.

Kleinberg, for one, likes what JCPenney has done with search as a tool to reach teens.

A JCPenney spokesperson said the company has a new teen Facebook page and a dedicated page that targets teens for the back to school season, jcp.com/teen. The company has also ramped up search campaigns on its teen brands like Arizona, Dorm Life, Rusty, Decree and professional skateboarder Ryan Sheckler's new line of clothing, RS By Sheckler.

JCPenney is supporting the RS By Sheckler line by buying "promoted video" placements on YouTube, which Kleinberg said helped garner over 60,000 views in one month. What's more, she said the click-through-rate of the ad is ten times higher than the average promoted video ad on YouTube and 33 percent of views are from users aged 13 to 17.

But JCPenney is obviously not alone in its efforts to lure in young customers with social media.

In July, Sears launched a campaign with Disney star Selena Gomez, which a company rep said was followed by a spike in conversations on social media applications like Twitter, MySpace and Facebook about Selena-related fashion at Sears.

Sears' new Web site, arrivelounge.com, includes videos of Gomez as well as the Sears Air Band, which is conducting a casting call to find a fifth member to perform with it at the MTV Video Music Awards in September. Sears also has a Campus Ready application on Facebook in which future college roommates can connect, plan out their dorm rooms and then buy everything from Sears.com.

For its part, Kmart says if you fuse the terms "fashion" and "cool," you get "schoolebrity" and it has a dedicated Web site with that name -- kmart.com/schoolebrityrocks -- that features games and a dress-up avatar. Parents can also use the page to find deals.

Google says consumers are searching for deals on school supplies this year, too. Google data shows "discount school supplies" and "free school supplies" are among the top ten back to school-related searches.

One provider of school supplies, Staples, has partnered with DoSomething.org, an online community that helps teens take positive action through volunteer work, to launch the Do Something 101 campaign to encourage teens to contribute supplies for local students in need. Videos featuring singers Ciara and Jordin Sparks on the DoSomething.org Web site encourage teens to participate.

And OfficeMax, too, has new videos for its own "Back to School for Pennies" program.

These so-called Penny Pranks videos feature improv actor Matt McCarthy attempting purchases for a variety of items including a guitar and antique toys using only pennies. Chicago advertising agency The Escape Pod created the campaign. According to OfficeMax, the Penny Pranks campaign had over 3 million views last year.

The program also includes school supplies that are available for one penny during each week of the back to school season.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lisa Lacy

Lisa Lacy is senior staff writer at ClickZ. In addition to ClickZ, her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Luxury Spot, LearnVest, MarthaStewart.com, GoodHousekeeping.com, amNewYork, and The Wall Street Journal. She's a graduate of Columbia's School of Journalism.

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