impact of ecommerce on retail

Winter holidays may be peak money-making time for online stores, but don’t overlook the back to school season. Parents and students spent more than $82 billion on back to school purchases in 2018.

That’s more than shoppers spent on Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day combined.

Today’s back-to-school must-haves include much more than jeans and school supplies, which means your eCommerce site may have a bigger audience than you think for back-to-school offers. And just about any business can offer a back-to-school themed deal.

The National Retail Federation says that back to school (defined as shopping for K-12 students) and back to college spending will hit record highs this year. The average household with K-12 kids will spend $696 on back to school. The average household with kids in college will spend $976. 

Want your online store to capture some of that spending? Here’s how you can get your eCommerce site ready and for back to school and back to college shoppers.

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Do You Have What Back-to-School Shoppers Need?

If your store sells kids’ clothes, shoes, backpacks, or school supplies, you’re probably already on top of your back to school marketing game.

However, electronics are also hot sellers for back to school. More than half of shoppers for K-12 kids said they’ll buy at least one new electronic device for back to school this year. The top electronics items for K-12 kids are computers, cellphones, and calculators. 

top purchase categories for back to school spending

The back to college market includes even more categories. School supplies, clothes, and shoes are all big categories for these young adults. So are personal care products and food—more than 70% of students surveyed said they’ll be stocking up on these items when they do their back to school shopping. 

More than half of back to college shoppers also plan to pick up some college-branded gear (which can be anything from shirts and hats to décor and gifts), electronics, and furnishings. More than a third of back to college shoppers—presumably parents—plan to stock up on gift cards, too.

top back to school purchase categories

Can You Offer What Back-to-School Shoppers Want?

Let’s say your store doesn’t sell any of the items mentioned above. You can still ace back to school season. Here are a few ideas to help you brainstorm your own offers:

  • Gardening supply stores can offer deals on seeds and tools for teachers who want to plant school gardens.
  • Online travel agencies can offer weekend packages for parents who need a little kid-free time after summer full of family togetherness.
  • Pet supply shops can run deals on treats and toys for companion animals whose pals are at school all day.
  • Board game, sporting goods, and toy sellers can promote deals on items that families can enjoy together on the weekends.
  • Stores that sell any sort of cleaning products have a perfect tie-in. Back to school is the perfect time for a deep cleaning of the house and car.

Understand the Back to School Shopping Timeline

School shopping season starts sooner than you think and lasts longer than you may realize. About half the households surveyed in early July by the NRF said they’d already started shopping.

And the big sale event that budget-conscious back to school shoppers wait for has already passed this year. Amazon Prime Day and its competitors’ sales draw a lot of attention from parents, teens, and college students. 

However, the other half of households surveyed at the beginning of July hadn’t started shopping yet, because they’re waiting for the best sales. If you want their back-to-school business, you’ll need to serve up a great sale.

What Makes a Great Back to School Sale for eCommerce Sites?

Price. Now’s the time to offer coupon codes and flash sales on your site to appeal to parents and teens—and to stay competitive with your competitors’ deals. Most back to school shoppers are price sensitive, a trend that’s persisted for years. However, tweens and teens are spending more of their own money on back to school purchases. That may translate into a few more splurge items (the average teen is kicking in about $36). 

Show some deal love to the teachers who shop with you, too. Teachers often spend out of their own pockets for classroom supplies—a big expense on a typical educator’s salary. Most major retailers offer special back to school deals like coupons, freebies, and extra rewards program points for educators. Your store will be more competitive if it does the same. And you don’t have to sell school supplies to make a teacher deal work. You can give them a deal on whatever you sell.

Free shipping. There’s no way around this one. The NRF survey found that “90 percent of K-12 and 85 percent of college shoppers plan to take advantage of free shipping.” Already offer free shipping? You’re good to go. 

If you don’t, now might be a good time to start. One popular approach is to offer paid shipping for your fastest delivery option and free shipping for slower delivery. These budget-conscious shoppers generally won’t mind waiting a couple of extra days in exchange for free shipping. 

Before you add free shipping to your store, you may need to adjust your product prices. Factor in your expected shipping expenses, so you don’t lose money on those orders. Now is also a good time to review your online store’s shipping guidelines to see if they need updating before the holiday rush.

Promotion. Create a campaign for the parent and young adult segments of your store’s email list that shows off your best back to school offers. Update your store’s blog with news about new back to school items or upcoming flash sales, and then share those posts on social media.

You can create coupon codes for your email list and social media followers, too. Nearly 20% of internet users say they always use coupons when they shop, and another 26% use them “very often.” Give them what they’re looking for.

Post Back-to-School Steps

Review your site traffic and sales numbers to fill out your back to school season report card. Make notes and put back to school prep on next year’s marketing calendar. Then take a breath and start getting your online store ready for the holidays.

Good luck!

Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelance B2B content marketing writer. Her specialty areas include SMB marketing and growth, data security, IoT, and fraud prevention