Who can ever forget that memorable Staples commercial from the 90s of that father dancing around the store and joyously placing back-to-school items — like staplers, backpacks and pencil sharpeners — in his cart, while his two young children looked on in horror as the classic holiday song “The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” played?
It was a genius marketing campaign but also oddly prescient, because, to retailers, the back-to-school shopping season really is like the second coming of the Christmas shopping season, or about as close as they can get to it, as it remains the second-largest retail season of the entire calendar year.
The sixth annual “Back to School Trend Report” by digital marketing agency PMX Agency examines the impact that digital, online and mobile shopping trends are having on retailers and the back-to-school shopping industry, which is largely being driven by millennials, an oddly timed generation that spans “from college students to parents of school children.”
In 2015 alone, back-to-school shopping season accounted for $68 billion in revenue from kindergarten through 12th grade (well, mostly their parents) and college students (mostly the college students themselves), with college students making up the bulk of the spending at $43.1 billion, despite only accounting for 19 percent of total enrollment.
“Clothing and shoes are popular all year long, but back-to-school months show a clear lift in interest,” according to the study. “Backpacks have lower volume, but their seasonal trend line shows one of the strongest and clearest associations with the timing of back-to-school shopping. Electronics are more strongly associated with holiday, but interest rises during late summer months.”
Back-to-school online search terms “grew significantly” compared to last year, showing the continued rise of mobile and eCommerce shopping trends, picking up steam in July and peaking in early August as the days begin to grow shorter and more and more minds turn to back to school, according to the report.
“Online shopping starts and ends earlier than offline, but a successful season requires an active online strategy right up to the end,” the report states.
Since online shopping habits have shifted to be more mobile-dominant, particularly when it comes to millennial customers, the study found that “early messaging” was vital to retailers and brands in order to be “top of mind” when the back-to-school shopping season kicks off later in the summer.
“As stores fight declining foot traffic, mobile traffic keeps growing,” according to the report. “Eighty-seven percent of millennials have a phone with them at all times, and they use them voraciously. Phones are social lifelines and all-powerful devices that solve problems and fulfill wishes. They are indispensable for deadline-driven shopping like back-to-school. Top mobile strategies empower shoppers with integrated search, social and paid content, optimized for discovering and sharing.”
Examples of “top mobile strategies” include Apple’s promotion that it began in late July 2015, giving free Beats headphones, normally costing $299.95, with any educational purchase. Apple has revived the offer again this year but rolled it out seven weeks earlier on June 2 and increased its advertising focus to appeal to college-aged buyers.
Although apparel, shoes, backpacks, laptop computers and tablets are among the most popular back-to-school products sold during the shopping season, they also proved to be the most “highly seasonal,” while online search queries related to dorm room products actually begin to rise much earlier in May than those other products.
“Image searches for brands are up 37 percent, and 80 percent happen on mobile. Shopping increasingly means browsing pictures first before reading details and price, and visual ads are gaining in share versus text ads,” according to the report. “In social media, parents mine Pinterest for ideas, teens share cool outfits and back-to-school song videos resonate with millions of viewers. Photo-sharing contests continue to be high impact.”
The back-to-school shopping season also allows retailers and brands the opportunity to “test drive” and refine certain ad campaigns and brand implementation strategies before the “crucial” year-end holiday shopping season fully kicks off.
“Marketers continue to use kickoff events and contests to cultivate early interest, adjusting urgency and offer as the season progresses,” according to the study.
Any way you slice it, the back-to-school shopping season is a lucrative and critical shopping season for almost all retailers and brands. One that, like most retailing habits, is beginning to shift more and more towards online-based.
Forget that image of the dad from the Staples commercial dancing around the aisles because he knows his kids are getting ready to go back to school soon. Retailers should be the ones dancing in the aisles when the back-to-school shopping season fully kicks off again this year.