ecommerce back to school shopping tips

As it turns out, the second-biggest shopping season of the year directly precedes the first. While sales don’t reach the heights of the winter holiday shopping season, back to school shopping in autumn still outperforms all other events of the season—which makes it a lucrative opportunity for ecommerce brands to branch into.

In fact, experts say that “back to school sales in the U.S. are expected to grow 6.7% from 2019 year” despite the pandemic’s hold on the world.

A 2021 survey completed by Deloitte Insights also revealed a lot of eye-opening data about the so-called “B2S shopping,” including:

  • The average spend per student is about $612.
  • There’s a 37% YoY increase in technological product sales (tablets, computers, etc.)
  • The study predicts that 59% of spending will happen before the end of July.
  • Merchants should expect 39% of back to school sales will be online.

As you can see, there’s money to be made with back-to-school shopping. But like marketing for Halloween sales, lots of online vendors think it doesn’t apply to them because they don’t sell backpacks, notebooks, or other “traditional” school supplies.

But what we’ve learned from the study is that back to school shopping is a lot broader than you might think — and there’s plenty of room for ecommerce stores to cash in on it.


Shopping Habits of Back-to-School Shoppers

Before we look at actionable back to school shopping tips for ecommerce, let’s review what we know about B2S shoppers. Here are the shopping habits found from the Deloitte study:


What They Buy

Here’s the percentage of surveyed customers that planned to buy from each product categories, and how much they’re estimated to spend. The initial percentages are out of the total surveyed customers, with the percentage of total sales underneath. Keep in mind there’s plenty of overlap since shoppers are buying more than one type of product.

  1. School Supplies – 95%
    • Average Amount Spent – $112
    • Share of Total B2S Sales – 22%
  2. Clothing and Accessories – 93%
    • Average Amount Spent – $286
    • Share of Total B2S Sales – 55%
  3. Computer and Hardware – 63%
    • Average Amount Spent – $299
    • Share of Total B2S Sales – 13%
  4. Electronic Gadgets – 16%
    • Average Amount Spent – $271
    • Share of Total B2S Sales – 8%

As you can see, less than a quarter of all back-to-school sales are actual school supplies — the majority of products sold can be found in more accessible markets.


Where They Buy

Of the shoppers who’ve already decided where they want to shop, here are their preferences. Again, there’s overlap since most customers buy from more than one source.

  • Mass Merchants – 83%
  • Dollar Stores – 38%
  • Ecommerce – 36%
  • Off-Price Stores – 32%

The customer’s age (generation) and income, as well as the type of product, also factor in to where they decided to shop. Here are some highlights:

  • Mass merchants were the number one destination for all age groups and product categories. In second place, Boomers prefer department stores while Millennials and Gen X prefer off-price stores.
  • More than half of low-income households shop at mass merchants, compared to only one-third of high-income households.
  • For clothing and accessories, customers spend the least at mass merchants. Average clothing sales for department stores ($390), fast-fashion retailers ($338), ecommerce ($279), and off-price stores ($277) all surpass clothing sales at mass merchants ($234).

These findings indicate that specialized stores like electronics, computer, and office supply stores can still go toe-to-toe with the mass merchants in their relevant categories.


When They Buy

The “back to school shopping season” is a bit of a misnomer, considering that it begins and ends at different times for different people. However, spanning from before July to September, some periods are more profitable than others, peaking in the first two weeks of August. Here are how many shoppers are active in these periods, and the total sales.

  • Before July
    • Amount of Sales: $1.3 billion
    • Active B2S Shoppers: 10%
  • First Two Weeks of July
    • Amount of Sales: $3.6 billion
    • Active B2S Shoppers: 26%
  • Last Two Weeks of July
    • Amount of Sales: $8.1 billion
    • Active B2S Shoppers: 54%
  • First Two Weeks of August
    • Amount of Sales: $9.9 billion
    • Active B2S Shoppers: 67%
  • Last Two Weeks of August
    • Amount of Sales: $3.9 billion
    • Active B2S Shoppers: 34%
  • September
    • Amount of Sales: $0.8 billion
    • Active B2S Shoppers: 8%

It’s no question the best time to attract customers is at the end of July and the beginning of August.


Ecommerce Strategies for Back to School Shopping

We’ve been talking a lot about back to school sales in general, but how does all this data apply to ecommerce brands? Aside from incorporating the above sales data into your marketing strategy, here are some more tips on how online stores specifically can capitalize on the second biggest spending period of the year.


Desktop vs Mobile

The study shows that about half of all shoppers will likely use either their desktop or mobile device for online shopping. That may be expected, but what’s interesting is that desktop shoppers are down 8% from last year, while mobile shoppers are up 4%. With mobile usage predicted to continue growing, ecommerce brands should start switching their priorities now if they haven’t already.


Compete Against Brick-and-Mortar Stores, Not Other Ecommerce Sites

Even in 2018, back to school shopping seems to be the domain of in-store shopping. Rather than trying to outsell your digital rivals, set your sights on the market share of brick-and-mortar stores.

There’s hope for this in the data, too. As we said above, half of all shoppers go online while shopping, not necessarily to make a purchase but to compare prices. Online vendors can use this to their advantage by offering extra incentives for online deals to claim in-store customers.

What can sway customers away from the immediacy of buying in-store? According to them, they’re looking for:

  • Free shipping (52%)
  • Buy online, return in-store option (46%)
  • Loyalty programs with faster or cheaper shipping (40%)
  • Buy online, pick up in-store option (34%)

Above all, don’t forget online coupons. At the end of the day, customers will likely buy from the store with the best price, regardless of whether it’s online or in-store.


Final Thought: Beware Digital Saturation

Over the last few years, ecommerce has been steadily claiming more of the retail market share… but don’t take that for granted. The latest results show the rise of online shopping is starting to curb, with some calling it digital saturation.

Rather than succumbing to the slow, online retailers can fight the saturation by offering newer and more modern tech to win back customers. This could be as simple as optimizing your website for mobile shoppers, or something even more likely to blow customers’ socks off like augmented reality.

For more B2S tips, here’s a list of 5 back-to-school marketing ideas to try!


Editor’s Note: This blog post was originally published July 2014 and was updated in July 2021 to reflect more accurate and relevant information.

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