Learning the 1-2-3’s of Back to School in the Digital Space

Today, it’s quieter during the day in homes throughout America. It’s quieter because three little words made quite some impact a few weeks ago in stores and online. Those three words are “back to school,” a time where teachers take on the demanding task of teaching children and adults of all ages the knowledge to make them successful. Taking a look at this past back-to-school season and the one prior, we can see some interesting changes in the marketplace, searcher behavior, and cross-visitation trends in the space.

Compared to 2010, back-to-school survey shoppers as reported by Compete’s Online Shopper Intelligence Survey have stayed relatively constant, with about 40 percent of households shopping for back-to-school items for at least one person, and that person most likely a child or young adult. Even with the rollercoaster ride of a year we have had with the economy, one in four consumers say they are going to spend more this year than they did in 2010, and the same trend occurred in 2010 versus 2009.

All the “I’m going to shop for back-to-school supplies and spend more this year than last” seems rather hearsay…however, when asked about whether or not products would be purchased online for back-to-school shopping, an interesting trend occurred. On a consistent basis, 2011 shopping outpaced all products with the exception of electronics – proving that this year, more action was happening online than in stores.

See the chart below:

likelihood-to-shop-online-2010vs2011

Additionally, by using Compete.com, I was able to see 16 percent growth year over year in the “office and school supplies” category; industry leaders being Staples, Office Depot, and OfficeMax.

school-supplies-growth-uv

Now that we know that the online space is becoming increasingly more important as a shopping outlet than traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, how is the online space playing a role as a tool used for back-to-school research? Of those who research prior to purchasing back-to-school items, over one-third relies on catalogs, circulars, or brochures, pushing a more traditional means of advertising. One in four researchers still head to a search engine to get quick and relevant results for their top-of-mind inquires. This means that offline promotional mailers and search term lists should be integrated, allowing for multiple touch points along the researcher path.

Finally, understanding how back-to-school shoppers are shopping online is especially important. Of those who shopped at non-school-supply-focused stores versus more traditional school supply stores, loyalty plays a large role.

cross-shoppers

Looking at average cross-shopping over the month of August, over one in three multi-product-focused e-retailers (Walmart, Target, CVS, Walgreens, Kmart) have visitors shopping back-to-school- and supply-focused sites (Staples, Office Depot, OfficeMax). Whereas, when looking at the reverse, only 1 percent of shoppers on school supply-focused sites were on e-retailers. This suggests that shoppers who visit a back-to-school product-driven site are more likely to stick to that type of retailer rather than shift gears and hit larger e-retailer sites.

The back-to-school market is changing, and it’s changing fast; creating and disseminating integrated messages via search and more traditional means is important. More importantly, driving online as a source for shopping is becoming increasingly more important. Retailers who choose not to create seamless on- and offline sales initiatives may be left behind in the 2012 back-to-school season.

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