Back To School Marketing: Perspective Behind the Numbers

Back to school marketingFor years, online retailers have studied Back-to-School data in order to ensure impression share on Paid Search is maximized when people are searching and, more importantly, shopping.

Having three school-aged children of my own has given me real-world perspective on the numbers, but it wasn’t until my twins went off to college that the buying cycles and patterns of the full Back-to-School audience became clear to me. Following is a chart from PMD’s 2014 Back-to-School study that illustrates the buying patterns as they pertain to K-12 and College.

back to school image july 2014

As you can see, the categories of spend differ pretty significantly among the two groups, with Clothing and Accessories outpacing that of the College segment, and Electronics over indexing for the College group.

While I do have 12+ years exposure to online retail and paid search, specifically, the perspective I have on how and why these two segments differ is purely from being a parent. Since understanding the context behind the purchases can help inform online marketing strategies, I thought I would share my observations.

K-12 Segment

In terms of what this group buys, it is fairly intuitive that Clothing and Accessories, Shoes, and School Supplies lead the pack. The Electronics spending in this category could be largely comprised of students in high school and some in middle school who need to buy the Texas Instrument 84 calculator (required by many high school math classes). This demo is also buying laptops since most schools do not provide them, and with many school resources having moved online, students need computers, too.

As far as the timing of purchases among the K-12 group, there are four events driving the cadence. There is always a very-early-in-the-season flurry of sales attributed to Back-to-School, which many in the industry chalk up to the fact that starts earlier in the South than in the North. While that is part of it, there are other factors at play. Here is where my parenting perspective kicks in and my educated guess at some of the reasons.

1. The spike in backpack sales in June and early July is likely due to two things. One is mislabeled as Back-to-School but is actually spending for camp. Second is replenishment for the beaten up, duct-taped backpack that gets plopped down in the kitchen or mud room on the last day of school not to be touched again until the day before the new school year starts. Parents who see this potentially go online to buy a replacement.

2. Beyond backpack spending, Clothing and Accessories sales also spike in June and early July partially due to (a) camp; (b) widespread sales of summer apparel; (c) uniforms before they run out; (d) gear for varsity sports whose practices start in the summer (Under Armour, for example, over indexes for traffic earlier than other back-to-school merchandisers.)

3. Spending for actual Back-to-School is largely concentrated in August when most logically assume it would occur, and the sales and traffic to websites, by month, always support that.

4. In September there is another blip of spending for the K-12 segment. I have heard people often attribute this to late school openings (such as some prep schools) or last-minute shopping, but I believe some of this is something different: kids see what their peers are wearing at school and want the same stuff. Anyone who has ever seen a group of middle school girls all dressed alike will know what I mean.

College Segment

The behavior of the college group in terms of Back-to-School spending differs in some ways significantly from the K-12 group.  As a parent of twins who went to college as Freshmen a year ago, I never would have anticipated the needs of this group but now see that my purview to their behavior matches well to the industry spending trends. There are three noteworthy activities specific to this demo.

1. Spending starts earlier than that of K-12, and it is true that college students usually go back earlier. But what is not evident in the numbers as it pertains to the timing is the importance of decorating the Freshman dorm. Speaking from experience, I am reasonably sure that the frenzy of dorm room decorating is purely a Freshman phenomenon with most of the buying taking place by that group. The researching starts in the Senior year of High School, picks up speed once college acceptances are in with the full-scale dorm buying taking place in May/June after dorm layouts are known. Purchases include linens, toiletries, shower caddies, fans, school supplies, decorations (mirrors, bulletin boards, posters and the like). By the end of June, Freshman have bought most of these items with limited need to replenish them in later college years.

2. Going off to college with a new laptop is considered essential to many in this demo. Kids will continue to use old computers as long as needed just to ensure they have a new one for school. This accounts for the high Electronics spend for this segment.

3. Gift cards: Before my kids went to college, I did not understand why gift cards always make the list of top spend categories, but I do now. Any Freshman parent understands that it is not the convocation or family activities that matter most on drop-off day.  It is the trip to Walmart for full-length mirrors, stackable plastic bins, cases of water, mini fridges and microwaves, cable tv cords, double-sided mounting tape, and snacks.  Parents supply their kids with gift cards to meet any future needs.

Knowing the spending patterns and context behind them can and should be leveraged when writing search copy or developing creative briefs for display or social. The numbers tell one story, but  understanding the context, marketers can strategically win maximum impression share in this lucrative once-a-year shopping event for retailers.

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