Remember that summertime TV commercial with the exuberant dad pushing a shopping cart around an office supply store, while his kids moped along behind him – all to the tune of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”? Some things don’t change, and no kid wants summer to end. Frankly, neither does this particular parent – it goes much too fast.
Back-to-school shopping, on the other hand, certainly has changed a fair bit in recent years. For starters, the number of U.S. consumers shopping online for some part of back-to-school has almost doubled in just five years: this year two in of five will shop online, compared to just one in five as recently as 2007. That’s per the latest back-to-school consumer survey conducted by BIGinsight for NRF. Oh, and by the way, close to a third of online back-to-school shoppers started this annual shopping ritual several weeks ago, and another half will start over the next two weeks. Target is already getting the message out, and I trust your back-to-school marketing and merchandising is already in full swing to capture this demand. For now, let’s look at the biggest trends from this year’s online shopping edition of the back-to-school survey.
Economic concerns drive further use of online shopping. Many consumers see online shopping as a way of both shopping smarter and stretching their budgets. Consumers remain mindful of their spending, and this year’s survey found that half of online back-to-school shoppers expect to do more comparative shopping online (compared to one-third of all back-to-school shoppers), while another third plan to shop more online than they did in the past. Over half of online back-to-school shoppers on average are also inclined to shop for sales more often (55.9%), while two out of five expect to use coupons more (44.7%), buy more store brand or generic products (42.7%), and use the familiar ad circular to comparison shop (40.6%). Retailers should make sure to convey to customers the strong value they offer, showcase special offers and what’s on sale, and provide pricing transparency across channels.
Brand consistency across channels and devices is a must for the omnichannel shopper. Of course, online back-to-school shoppers hardly limit themselves to just the web. These consumers are actually more likely than all back-to-school adult shoppers to also shop in department stores (71.8%, vs. 59.9% of all back-to-school shoppers), clothing stores (73% vs. 52%), electronics stores (47.1% vs. 26.3%), office supply stores (56.5% vs. 42%) and drug stores (30.8% vs. 22.7%).
Those shopping for back-to-school merchandise will turn to their mobile devices as well. Over half of smartphone owners will be tapping these omni-present devices to research products and compare prices, while a good third will use them to look up retailer info, redeem coupons, and buy products. It seems to me that some of the new, larger screen smartphones are starting to persuade me that smartphone commerce may be more viable than I originally thought. The same can be said for tablet device owners, though closer to half expect to buy products on this device.
The takeaway? Online back-to-school shoppers will be looking to buy from your brand interchangeably across all of your customer touch points. Well-oiled cross-channel processes such as “buy online, pick up in store”, the ability for associates to quickly place online orders for out of stock items – plus handle cross-channel returns and exchanges – are by now imperative to meet customer expectations. By the same token, customers also will expect your online services to help them at least as adeptly as your store associates.
The bottom line: online back-to-school shoppers expect to spend 27% more than all back-to-school shoppers. Across clothing and accessories, shoes, school supplies, and electronics and computer-related goods, online back to school shoppers this year anticipate spending a combined average of $874.32. Online back-to-school consumers are careful shoppers, to be sure, fastidiously comparing prices and products, consulting customer reviews, and looking for and redeeming coupons and offers.
However, retailers don’t have to offer deep discounts that hurt the bottom line. Think creatively about what else your customer values, then A/B test those offers - e.g. discounted shipping, free returns and exchanges (particularly for items such as shoes, a big back-to-school category), shipping upgrades (perhaps closer to school start times such as Labor Day). Additionally, don’t forget tactics such as well-marketed sale pages that speak to back-to-school needs, providing advance notice on new arrivals for special customers, or extra value such as upgraded customer support or maintenance for bigger ticket items. Keep in mind that retailers told us in our 2011 post-holiday study that more complex promotions such as bounce backs, first time buyer discounts, repeat buyer discounts, rebates and free gift with purchase offers did not induce many customers to buy online – instead, provide genuine value and keep offers simple and to the point.
Want more back-to-school? You can find the full results of the online back-to-school shopping survey on the Shop.org website, and visit NRF’s Back-to-School Headquarters for a full breakdown of this year’s consumer reports.