Back-to-school shopping behaviors are evolving as more consumers look to their smartphones and computers for deals, price comparisons, and new products. While the back-to-school shopping season is very much a play for brick-and-mortar shops, marketers are learning how to match their digital marketing strategy with the traditional characteristics that define the late summer shopping rush.
"The back-to-school campaigns are still very much for big retailers. They're still trying to generate foot traffic," said Jarvis Mak, VP of analytics at Rocket Fuel, a digital ad solution provider for brands. A new survey from Rocket Fuel found that dads are the most likely to exclusively shop online and they are five times more likely than moms and two times more likely than teens to consider a friend's opinion when making a purchase.
While marketers may focus much of their back-to-school attention on moms and students, Rocket Fuel found that nearly one in four dads use their mobile device to shop online and while in store. Only 10 percent of teens said they shop on their mobile device and 12 percent said they use their mobile device to shop while in store.
Moreover, the survey found that 59 percent of moms only shop in stores compared to 52 percent of teens and dads. Barely more than one in 10 dads said they only shop online while no moms and only 1 percent of teens exclusively shop online.
For marketers who push their back-to-school campaigns into mobile and digital, the goal is to reach shoppers on whatever channel they are most engaged. "I think the power that digital and particularly social provides is you're able to make those split marketing decisions with short notice," said Jason Weaver, CEO of Shoutlet, a social media marketing platform. "I see that the campaigns are planned less far out…They have the ability to change on a dime with social."
Many of Shoutlet's clients are running contests and promotions around back to school with a primary focus on Facebook, he said. Sears Canada is running a promotion for likes on Facebook, offering a $5,000 spending spree.
Bealls, a department store in Florida, is running a campaign on Facebook and Pinterest with daily prizes. Over the span of 20 days, the company racked up more than 21,000 entries for the contest and at least 5,000 likes, said Weaver. The brand was particularly pleased with the results of the campaign, considering it included no paid advertising.
For many, the back-to-school season is just another period of heightened shopping. But is there something inherently different about this time of year that gives marketers greater creative freedom and the ability to reach new consumers?
The late summer months are a "time of natural transition for people," said Paul Kuzma, chief creative officer at Tris3ct. "It's really like a refresh season for essentials and so much more…Your entire mindset is open to new ideas."
The reasons for these annual transitions differ, but as parents evaluate the changes in their lives and students transition to the next grade, the decisionmakers in each household are particularly open to new suggestions and products, Kuzma said.
"It's like a reset button to be prepared for the changes ahead," he continued. "Many consumers are more comfortable with new ideas and are ready to hit reset across many parts of their lives."
The back-to-school season is a special time for marketers to try new things and reframe brand messaging to change consumers' perceptions of products, Kuzma said. "Holidays can be a cluttered time," he said, whereas back to school fosters an open consumer mindset.
"Back to school is critical for shopping all kinds of categories," he said, including technology, household supplies, home improvement, cellphones, and even groceries. "With the right marketing, the things you wouldn't traditionally think of as back-to-school supplies can really thrive in this back to shopping mindset."
Consumer shopping behaviors are also shifting as each school year passes and begins anew. A study released by shopper marketing agency Ryan Partnership earlier this month found that young men, women, and mothers are increasingly using new digital tools such as brand and retail social media activity, mobile apps, barcodes, coupons, and daily deal sites. But the digital shopping tools that still rise to the top - store websites, search engines, downloadable coupons, and email - aren't exactly new channels for marketing.
When asked how these digital tools influence how they shop, at least 86 percent of all moms, young men, and young women surveyed said their primary objective was to save money. The majority of respondents also said digital shopping tools are helping them pick the right store, be an all around smarter shopper, and make their shopping experience faster and easier.
"The retailers are seeing the payback from these tools now, the tools they're using to engage shoppers," said Kim Finnerty, VP of consumer and shopper insights at Ryan Partnership. "They need to think about the different ways men, women, and moms shop."
Finnerty said brick-and-mortar retailers are being particularly effective at increasing foot traffic and purchases in store through digital marketing on a variety of channels. The ongoing shift from traditional analog stores to digital is blurring the lines and mixing the experiences of in-person and online shopping.
"Every trip that you make into any of these stores you can bring in all their information and all of their deals and all of the tools you need on your phone," Finnerty said. "There were a couple of tools that really helped people decide which store they wanted to shop in…It's definitely changing the way people decide which retailers to go through."
The challenge for traditional retailers is to make their stores as engaging as online shopping. Mobile apps from brands, stores, QR codes, barcode scanners, and mobile coupons are all becoming part of the in-store shopping experience. Most stores are welcoming these new features with open arms, she said, adding that she was particularly surprised by the growth in mobile apps and social media.
"Mobile apps are still small but they have more than tripled in size since 2010 when we first asked about them, and they have interesting utilities for shoppers," Finnerty said. A substantial rise in mobile app development and improved user experiences for shopping over the next two years will enable companies to reach a wider and more eclectic group of consumers, she added.
"I think right now it kind of is a barrier. It seems easier to most of us to just print out a coupon. The younger you are the more natural it seems to do everything through mobile or a tablet," Finnerty said. "As time goes on there's going to be more and more folks that are interested doing everything on the phone."
Kuzma, a 15-year advertising and marketing veteran who is currently working with Uni-ball on a campaign targeting young men, said he's most excited about mobile as well, but back-to-school shoppers are still most likely to shop online. Mobile apps are primarily serving as a price-comparison tool in the shopping setting while online still gives shoppers the ability to dig deeper into the details of a product and make a more informed purchasing decision.
"We always think that ideas create the most effectiveness, so we want to put provocative messages in the marketplace no matter what the channel is," Kuzma said.
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Matt Kapko has been writing about mobile since 2006, before it became cool. Based in Long Beach, CA, he has covered mobile entertainment, digital media, marketing, and advertising for several business media outlets. A former editor and reporter for RCR Wireless News, paidContent, and iMedia Connection, Matt is a regular freelance reporter for ClickZ. You can follow Matt on Twitter at @MattKapko or drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.