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School's Out for Summer—Bring on Back-to-School Shopping

Back-to-school shopping starts earlier, but buying still occurs close to first day of school

June 26, 2015 | Retail & Ecommerce

Propelled by back-to-school buying, US retail sales will grow a relatively strong 4.6% during the core back-to-school shopping months of July and August 2015, eMarketer expects. At the same time, retail ecommerce sales will rise 14.4%, passing $56 billion to represent 16.5% of full-year retail ecommerce sales, according to a new eMarketer report, “Back-to-School Ecommerce Preview 2015: Forecast and Trends for Retail’s ‘Second Season.’”

US Retail Ecommerce Back-to-School Season Sales, 2011-2015

In general, the back-to-school shopping season has moved earlier every year. Some believe merchants are driving that shift. “The back-to-school season, similar to the holiday season, continues to manifest itself earlier and earlier,” said Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak. “It’s all based on retailers and their desire to try to get to the wallet early before the consumer runs out of money.”

Most consumers begin their online shopping weeks before they decide to buy anything. 2014 National Retail Federation research found that 22.5% of adult US internet users shopping for kids ages 6 to 17 started two or more months before school started. A further 44.5% began between three weeks and a month ahead. Back-to-college ramped up even earlier.

Time of Year When US Internet Users Begin Shopping for Back-to-School* and Back-to-College** Items, July 2014 (% of respondents)

Much of the early shopping happens online—a behavior reflected in online back-to-school sales generally peaking earlier than in-store sales. “Online shopping starts earlier and ends earlier [than in-store],” said Glenn Lalich, vice president of research and analysis at PM Digital, citing data from Shop.org that showed 30.3% of online shoppers started their back-to-school shopping at least two months before the start of school.

Google reported a 45% increase in back-to-school searches in 2014, and the peak lasted two weeks longer than it had in previous years. April Anderson, industry director for retail sales at Google, said that searches began in May and continued through September. Using Google data, PM Digital found that back-to-school searches peaked August 9 in 2014, compared with August 17 in 2013, August 18 in 2012 and August 20 in 2011.

Although shopping is moving earlier, the bulk of back-to-school buying continues to happen close to the start of school. “Shoppers who look for the best deals [buy] in advance,” said Shalini Gupta, vice president of customer success at Iris Mobile. “But the vast majority of people are just-in-time shoppers, where they’re picking up the last offer and getting things the week before school starts.”

The buying window remains compact. “We found that 75% of all back-to-school shopping is completed in two weeks or less,” said Anderson. “The implication for retailers is that you need to be always-on when the shopper is ready to shop, or you risk missing that customer.”

Even so, the shift in school calendars and early deals is pushing some consumers to buy earlier. ShopperTrak found that in-store sales peaked in the first two weeks of August in 2013 and 2014, compared with the second two weeks of August as recently as 2012.

eMarketer corporate subscription clients can view the full report here.

Get more on this topic with the full eMarketer report, “Back-to-School Ecommerce Preview 2015: Forecast and Trends for Retail’s ‘Second Season.’”

eMarketer releases over 200 analyst reports per year, which are only available to eMarketer corporate subscribers.

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