The U.S. back-to-school (BTS) season is projected to rake in $857.2 billion in retail sales plus $74.3 billion in online sales this year. That’s up 4% and 14.8% respectively for the second highest grossing shopping season next to the Christmas and holiday season.
Breaking with tradition?
Traditionally, the back-to-school season begins just after Independence Day. When the red, white and blue messaging comes down on July 5th, just about every retailer and brand is gearing up for school. The bulk of BTS spending happens in late July and early-to-mid August, with an earlier product research phase. But with retailers clambering to get their piece of the estimated $716 per household pie, these dates have been shifting.
Although most brands held to the traditional schedule, some 2017 BTS advertisers tried to get ahead of the class with campaigns launching as early as June. And while most school-aged kids are just kicking off their summer breaks during this time, an early start to BTS efforts is not a new trend. In fact, a review of start dates for BTS programs from 2014 thru 2017 shows us it is clear some brands are still in the dark as to when they should begin their efforts. And to be clear, there are two schools of thought on this:
Begin BTS advertising too early: Risk turning off your consumers who are not yet ready to think about summer ending.
Begin BTS advertising too late: Jeopardize your opportunity to engage and influence your audience during the research stage.
Purchase windows vary by product type.
While most consumers research products and make purchases throughout the summer and into September, there are apparent stages of back-to-school shopping:
Stage I – consumer electronics: Early July through mid-August
Stage II – office supplies: Throughout August with a second peak in early September
Stage III – clothing: Late August and throughout September
What brands are winning?
So far this year, Walmart, Target and Old Navy are leading in terms of value perception, BTS campaign awareness and consumer intent. This doesn’t seem too surprising, as these three brands are also big spenders and consistently adapting to maintain top-of-mind brand awareness.
And of course, there’s Amazon. This year’s Amazon Prime Day, on July 11, was perfectly timed with the start of back-to-school season. And though their school supply prices check in approximately 15% higher than other sites, they are steadily increasing their share of the BTS school supply and apparel markets. In 2016, Amazon BTS sales were up 20% year over year. During the first two weeks of the 2017 BTS season, Amazon reports a 35% increase in school supply sales and a 61% increase in apparel sales compared to the same time period last year.
Grab your notebooks, there’s still time to compete.
The winner of the 2017 back-to-school season is still unknown. It is estimated that only 13% of BTS shoppers complete all of their purchases by the end of August. That leaves a lot on the table as we head into September, so don’t hop off the BTS bus just yet.
How can you capitalize on the remaining days of the BTS season? Stop thinking of BTS as one season. Instead, analyze your prior years’ data to understand who is shopping in September and what they’re buying. Build audiences with an understanding of what BTS means to them. When is (or was) the first day of school? What grades are their kids in? Is anyone headed off to college for the first time? Like all other marketing seasons, BTS efforts are usually most successful when you segment your audience and hit them with messages relevant to actions they are likely to be taking.
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Written By: Kathy Bryan, VP of Corporate Marketing & Communications @ DMS
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