Back-to-School Shoppers Hit Web Early

As a child, I remember the final weeks of summer meant only one thing: the first day of school was near. Students across the country will soon be forced to say goodbye to their carefree days of summer and return to the classroom. While children typically dread this time of the year, parents may be anxious for an entirely different reason: the expenses of back-to-school shopping. In these tough economic times, parents must stretch their dollar to cover the cost of new clothes, shoes, school supplies, and much more. Given the doomsday predictions about this year’s back-to-school spending, I decided to take a look at the online behavior of back-to-school (BTS) shoppers for the month of July, and see how their actions compared to this time last year.

First of all, I tracked some popular back-to-school search terms. I saw significant increases in the number of these searches this year, and many websites saw a jump in traffic based on these searches. I focused on five sites that cater to school shopping needs: Office Depot, Office Max, Staples, Target, and Walmart.

Based on the search data, it’s clear that consumers are spending more time this year researching their back-to-school needs on the web. But I wanted to know more. How did this increase in search translate into on-site activity? Were people buying more online, or simply finding out information? To answer this question, I looked at how many people performed three key actions on these sites: finding a store, reading the weekly ad flyer, and making a purchase.

From this information, I noticed that consumers engaged with these sites at higher levels than they had in July 2008. However, these three actions increased at vastly different rates. While back-to-school shoppers did make more purchases online than they had at this time last year, this jump was much lower than the others. It seems as though visitors to these sites were more focused on gathering information, as seen by the significant growth in store locater and weekly ad use.

Some retailers fared better than others in terms of engaging customers. For example, Staples saw a 95% increase in weekly ad views, while Office Depot only increased by 18%. However, Office Depot saw the largest spike in engagement with the store locator, going from 2% of visits in 2008 to 7.1% of visits in 2009"”close to a 250% increase. And the highly coveted purchase rate? Office Depot’s purchase rate grew 47% whereas Staples experienced a 30% drop compared to last year.

So what can we take away from this data?

  • First, this back-to-school season appears busier on the web than it was at this time last year. Either shoppers are turning to the internet in greater numbers, or people are starting earlier this year in hopes of finding the best deals.
  • Secondly, the increased frenzy around back-to-school shopping on the internet does not necessarily imply a significant increase in online purchases. Instead, people may be using these sites to find coupons or to prepare for an in-store shopping trip. For instance, Staples saw much higher rates of engagement compared to last year (including a significant spike in weekly ad views), but its purchase rate actually went down.

No matter what, it’s clear that the back-to-school rush has kicked off and it’s only just beginning. Shopping will continue to heat up throughout the month of August, right up until the first school bell rings.

About Lindsay Steinbach:
Lindsay Steinbach is an Associate in Retail and Consumer Products at Compete. Lindsay is responsible for data mining and providing analysis for a wide rang of retail and CPG clients. Before Lindsay joined the Compete team she was a student at Dartmouth College. Connect with Lindsay on LinkedIn