Cramming for the Back to School Shopping Season? Here’s a Cheat Sheet to Ace the Online Rush

Cramming for the Back to School Shopping Season? Here’s a Cheat Sheet to Ace the Online Rush

It’s not just the second biggest shopping season of the year. The back to school sales rush is a chance for you to win new customers and keep them with you through to the holidays.

Pop quiz: What seasonal trends do you need to follow? Which customers should you target and where? How can you prepare your site, marketing and fulfillment strategies to provide the ultimate customer experience during peak traffic days?

Evaluating these options when you’ve got an ecommerce store to run might be giving you the first day of school jitters.

Don’t worry! You can cheat off our homework to capture and convert new customers in the months to come.

Seasonal Shopping Trends

Back to school shopping season is starting earlier every year. According to Google, “searches [for Back to School in 2014] began in May and continued through September. Using Google data, PM Digital found that back-to-school searches peaked August 9 in 2014, compared with August 17 in 2013, August 18 in 2012 and August 20 in 2011.”

Regardless of what you are selling, you need to ensure your site can handle peek online traffic days as you get closer to the first day of school.

As the chart below indicates, 30% of shoppers are procrastinators and will wait until one or two weeks before school starts to begin shopping. The good news is that Shopify Plus can handle high volume traffic during peak seasonal shopping days.

Back to school shopping procrastinators

Image via ABC

The Online Shopping Season Lasts Longer for Specific Categories

CardLytics has found that online spending persists almost a month longer than in-store shopping through to the end of September.

Image via CardLytics

This trend is most prevalent in the apparel category “as students responded [in 2015] to the styles they saw at school with follow-up purchases online.”

Also, families have less time to make a second trip to the store after the school year starts for last-minute office supplies and electronics. So, you need to be prepared that shoppers are “33% more likely to buy these necessities online [in mid to late September].”

Image via CardLytics

Major Growth Opportunities in Mobile Commerce

In 2015, overall online sales increased 12% year-over-year (YOY) during the BTS season. That’s great news for ecommerce since in-store seasonal spending was down slightly in 2015 versus the previous year.

It’s also important to note that in 2015 BTS transactions via smartphones increased 42% YOY.

And Shopify announced that “merchants’ orders from mobile phones have just surpassed those from desktop for the first time.” So, if you don’t ensure your site offers a great mobile website user experience, you could be missing out on a lot of sales.

Now that you know where and when to focus your BTS shopping promotional efforts let’s look at how to develop marketing strategies around key target segments.

Marketing Strategies for Key Target Segments

Spending and purchase behaviors vary between BTS target segments. Here’s what you need to know and some ideas to target them effectively.

1. Families with Kids in Grades K-12

The average family with kids in grades K-12 spent roughly $630 on back to school items in 2015. The majority of their spend was in apparel and electronics.

This trend is great news for electronics merchants as a recent FatWallet survey revealed that “parents are more likely to believe that the BTS season is the best time to buy student laptops and tablets than they are to say the Black Friday is the best time.”

Image via DigiDay

2. Back-to-College Shoppers

This target segment spends the most during the BTS sales season, primarily because 31% of college students will live in a door room or student housing increasing the need for household items and furniture on top of the items listed in the chart above. In 2015, the average overall planned back to college expenditure was $899 and $126 of that on average was spent on dorm or apartment furnishings (up 30% YOY).

Back-to-College shoppers were also the highest users (in history) of mobile devices for completing their 2015 seasonal transactions. In fact, 31% of respondents in an NRF survey said that they planned to use their smartphone, and 35% were planning on using their tablet to make purchases.

But if you sell to either segment online, you’re going to have to compete with in-store purchases at discount/value department stores which are still the primary BTS shopping destination. Your competitive edge though is that intent to buy online increased significantly in 2015 and is now the second biggest destination for families shopping for BTS items.

Image via Deloitte

So, how can you get parents and students to spend more with your ecommerce store than discount department store competitors? Let’s go through some differentiation strategies.

I. Target Time-Starved and Convenience Seeking Shoppers

“Nearly half of all parents [of K-12 and college kids] surveyed indicated they now spend more time online than in front of the television,” says a Rubicon Project Back to School shopping survey. And the time of day that they are researching and making purchase decisions has shifted from prime time to whenever they have the time. So you should plan promotions for when peak online purchases occur.

As the chart below indicates, online shopping expenditures actually peak on Mondays and throughout the work week as shoppers have less free time to get to a store. So, your best bet is to promote your BTS offers from Monday to Friday. Likewise, Remarkety has found that ecommerce emails tend to have the highest purchase rates from 8 am to 1 pm (people like to shop online at their desks at lunch), then on people’s commute home from work from 5 pm to 6 pm.

Use this knowledge to your advantage to increase your ad spend, social media, and email marketing efforts, and to maximize conversions during critical online shopping days and times.

Image via Windsor Circle

II. Target Local, Mobile Ads in Regions Where Department Store Searches are Weakest

If there’s a bully big box or discount department store that has been stealing your lunch money, why not pick key local battlegrounds to take your stand? You can go a step further and focus more heavily on mobile ads for these regions to hit up in-store mobile shoppers as well (more on that in the next section).

When it comes to engaging with online ads, Rubicon Project found that

“half of parents with college students indicated they had clicked on an online ad in the past seven days (50 percent), and nearly half of them (48 percent) also clicked on a mobile ad. About two in five parents of college students reported making a purchase within the past week based on a mobile ad (41 percent).”

emails tend to have the highest purchase rates from 8 am to 1 pm (people like to shop online at their desks at lunch), then on people’s commute home from work from 5 pm to 6 pm.

Use this knowledge to your advantage to increase your ad spend, social media, and email marketing efforts, and to maximize conversions during critical online shopping days and times. From there, you can drill into the state information to see county search performance.

Target in Google Trends

Image via Google Trends

This exercise will give you a sense of the strongest and weakest regions; the weaker ones are likely where Target doesn't have a physical location. You can then go back to the store locator on the website and confirm that information.

Finally, search for the zip codes of the areas where Target's search volume is weak and record them. This approach may take a while, but you'll eventually put together a master targeting parameter list that you can use for Facebook and Google Ads.

A site like can also help you dig into the demographics of each region (e.g. age range, income, and job type), so you can see if people in your master list are part of your core demographic, and delete those zip codes that are not.

To build creative that will speak to these parts of the market that you know aren't as interested in a particular big box retailer, check out this post on researching and attracting local markets.

III. Empower Mobile Showroom Shoppers in Key Regions (Defined Above)

While brick and mortar stores are still the leading destination for BTS shopping, mobile devices heavily impact those purchase decisions. According to Deloitte, 80% of smartphone owners indicated an intent to use their devices for BTS shopping in 2015; 53% of tablet users said they would do the same.

Deloitte reveals that the leading purpose is to download or get discounts (90% selected retailers based on the availability of coupons and deals on mobile devices). But smartphone shoppers also frequently research price information and store locations and inventory, visit retailers sites and more online.

And almost 60% of them are doing these activities while looking at physical products in a retail store especially in the electronics and apparel categories. This behavior is often referred to as showroom shopping.

Image via Deloitte

To capture a showroom shopper’s attention away from a retail competitor and get them to convert online instead, you need to be present at “intent-driven ‘microments’ of decision making” as Google calls it. These moments are described in the chart below.

Specifically, Think With Google reveals that “during back-to-school season, search interest in "shoe stores near me" spiked in August for the last two years in a row, and it more than doubled year over year.” However, "’shoe store locations’ searches, are declining.” This means people are less likely to plan out their shopping trips in advance. “They're shopping in I-want-to-go moments and relying on mobile to tell them where to head.”

So, why not intercept those searches in local regions where you are more likely to win against big retail competitors and offer a better deal or reason to buy online?

Image via Think With Google

It’s therefore important to tailor your marketing strategy around this opportunity and consider the following:

  • Offer free Wi-Fi in-store (if you have a retail presence) to enable customers to shop around online for the best products and price and then honor the best price they can find.

  • Offer free downloadable coupons, offers and loyalty rewards to customers using an in-store app or via your website (in case they are shopping via a competitor’s store) to get them to buy online with you versus a competitor.

  • Help customers save time making purchase decisions by giving them access to a mobile text-based assistant like Shopkey, which lets you share links to all of your products in your online catalog while answering their questions.

V. Feature Convenient Fulfillment Options in Ads

As the Deloitte chart below indicates, both male and female Back-to-College shoppers value flexibility in fulfillment options which influence their seasonal purchase decisions. Likewise, a 2015 NRF survey revealed:

  • Nearly half of online back-to-college shoppers said they plan to use ship-to-store or in-store pick-up services.

  • 9 in 10 plan on buying from sites with free shipping (significantly higher than overall BTS shoppers at 66%).

With that information in mind, make sure your copy reflects these options to increase the likelihood that they’ll buy from you versus waiting for the right day to purchase in-store with a competitor.

Image via Deloitte

To gain even more of an advantage, consider offering fast, local delivery options. For example, Shopify recently inked deals with UberRUSH and Postmates to enable merchants to offer same-day shipping to customers in major U.S. cities.

IV. Extend Online BTS Promotions Longer Than In-Store Competitors

The timing of the fast deliveries services suggested above will be most relevant to last-minute shoppers who will buy their products (e.g. fall fashions, electronics, and school supplies) online during the two weeks leading up to and after the first day of school. So be sure to raise awareness of your last-minute and extended promotions (while considering key days and times to increase ad spend) to convert more customers online.

Final Thoughts

Now that you’ve done your BTS sales and marketing planning homework, your next assignment is to figure out the logistics of making your seasonal sales and promotions a success.

We’ll get into those solutions and best practices in the weeks to come. In the meantime, drop us a line if you have any questions about getting your ecommerce store ready for the BTS online rush.


About the Author

Andrea Wahbe is a freelance B2B marketing strategist and corporate storyteller who writes about Canadian SMEs, marketing, and digital media trends. Follow her on Twitter.