Why Advertisers Need To Do Their Homework On Back-To-School Shopping

  • Written by  Toby McKenna, Bazaarvoice

0aatobybazaarBack-to-school shopping is big business for retailers. How does it measure up to other shopping seasons? Behind the holidays, it’s the second-most-popular shopping window of the year, and for the past two years, shopper spend has increased by 10% or more. If that trend holds this year, back-to-school spend could surpass $80 billion.

The holiday shopping season has a well-defined shopping window, but back-to-school presents a much more complex timeline. The back-to-school shopping window begins as early as July but lasts longer, and it’s characterized with ups and downs that vary based on who’s shopping and what items they’re shopping for.

The three biggest back-to-school categories are clothing/apparel, office supplies and consumer electronics, and they have incredibly distinct and seasonal buying cycles. That means marketers need to think about their back-to-school advertising strategies at the category or even SKU level in some cases. Fortunately, businesses that study up on seasonality trends can maximize their back-to-school sales. By leveraging actionable insights from relevant shopping intent data, brands can allocate their budgets to correlate with the shopping behaviors of today’s savvy consumers.

We analyzed Bazaarvoice Network data from 2016, looking at valuable seasonality trends and shopper behavior across the clothing/apparel, office supplies and consumer electronics categories. Here’s what we found:

Lesson 1: As Back-To-School Spending Rises, So Does Opportunity For Advertisers

Back-to-school is a growing market, with spend increasing year-over-year and spanning multiple buyer targets, like: parents of grade school children; parents of college students; college students themselves; and teachers and administrators. In 2016, back-to-school spend rose 11% year-over-year to an estimated total of $75.8 billion.

As consumer spend increases during the summer months, so do the opportunities for smart advertisers to connect with and capture in-market shoppers. Navigating the complexities of different personas, the fragmented digital path to purchase, and the changing seasonality for different back-to-school categories is a considerable challenge, which is why implementing a data-driven advertising strategy is more important than ever. In-market shoppers are leaving a trail of strong intent signals across devices and across the web. Advertisers that study these data points can use them to inform their strategy and capitalize on the shopping season.

Lesson 2: Timing Is Everything, And Seasonality Patterns Vary By Category

The majority of back-to-school shoppers research and buy items while they’re on summer vacation, and they begin their search as early as July. What’s more, a third of shoppers say they’re not done buying until after the school year begins.

With this extended period of time, advertisers need to be smart about their pace of ad spend as the season progresses. One way to approach this challenge is to look at the exact window when people are shopping across different categories — consumer electronics spikes first, then office supplies, and finally clothing/apparel finishes the season.

Let’s look at a seasonality breakdown for each.

Consumer Electronics: Checking Off Big-Ticket Items First


  • Shoppers in this category, college students and their parents, begin their search early, ticking off their biggest-ticket items, like laptops and printers, as early as July. One explanation for this could be that college students head to school earlier than K-12, commonly in mid-August, so they start the purchase journey earlier.

  • From July 8 to August 22, 2016, shopper activity increased 40%. Mondays were the biggest day for product pageviews in this category. After enjoying summer weekends, shoppers go back to their checklists at the beginning of the week.

Office Supplies: Stocking Up In August


  • Office supplies is the next category to trend. As teachers send out their lists of school supplies, parents begin to stock up on these items in August. The second peak in September indicates a second, smaller rush for forgotten items.

  • Page views in this category were highest mid-week (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday). After all, who wants to spend their weekend shopping for office supplies?

Clothing/Apparel: Last-Minute Trendspotting



  • Clothing/Apparel is the last of the major back-to-school categories to spike. Shopping peaks in late August and steadies through September. Perhaps shoppers are awaiting colder temperatures or opt to follow fashion trends after school begins.

  • Nearly 60% of product page views occurred on mobile devices, indicating that shoppers prefer researching and showrooming from their smartphones rather than from their computers. Mobile-first Gen Z’ers are now college students who likely make up a large portion of mobile shoppers.

Together, these insights derived from shopper data allow advertisers to break down the long back-to-school shopping season into three smaller time frames and better target the different shoppers in those categories.

Lesson 3: Shoppers ‘Doing Their Homework’ Demonstrate An Immediate Intent To Buy

When it comes to the type of data they are using for campaigns, advertisers should leverage insights from people who have demonstrated an intent to buy. It can be difficult to know which consumers are closest to the bottom-of-funnel, but there are ways to identify them.

For example, looking at shoppers who have researched specific products online can reveal when a shopper has reached the comparison phase of the purchase cycle. Even though many back-to-school shoppers are making purchases in-store, they are still actively researching online.

To understand shoppers’ path to purchase and hone in on the moments when they are in the intent phase, advertisers should work with their data partner to understand how they source and define their audience segments. Ideally, your data should be able to tell you when a shopper has demonstrated multiple intent signals.

Just because someone looked at a pair of jeans online three months ago does not mean they are in-market for back-to-school outfits. Someone who has viewed five pairs of jeans in the past 30 days, read reviews, compared options at multiple retailers, and then purchased jeans is much more likely to engage with and be influenced by timely clothing and apparel ads. The data you use to inform your advertising should be based on multiple, up-to-date intent signals to ensure your advertising is relevant and engaging.

A Back-To-School Shopping List For Advertisers

With back-to-school budgets on the rise, retailers should be optimistic about their sales potential. Now is the time for marketers to study up on their shoppers and craft a strategic digital advertising strategy informed by the complex seasonality nuances of back-to-school season. Here’s your back-to-school list for setting an A+ strategy:

  • Budget your back-to-school advertising spend around product-specific shopping spikes. Unlike other shopping seasons, back-to-school is more complex. Consumers make purchases for different things at different times and over the course of several months.

  • Look for signs that shoppers have entered the intent phase of the funnel — then capture them. A strong indicator of intent is researching products via online reviews. Connect with in-market shoppers in these moments to influence consideration.

  • Leverage relevant and trusted data to inform your campaign strategy. Shoppers are spending more, but they’re also spending smarter. Advertisers need to do the same to efficiently connect with shoppers in the moments that matter.

By taking this checklist into account and thinking strategically about targeting key audiences, retailers tap into this hyper-seasonality to reach each market segment with the products they’re looking for at the time they’re looking for it.


Toby McKenna is the Senior Vice President, Global Advertising of Bazaarvoice. The leader of Bazaarvoice’s global advertising business, McKenna joined Bazaarvoice from fan engagement platform Answers, where she was executive vice president and general manager, responsible for global business including sales, editorial, revenue operations and new business. She has led digital sales and marketing teams for over 15 years; her experience spans across media, mobile, and e-Commerce companies, where she has been instrumental in growing the digital business for some of the world’s most recognized brands, such as The New York Times, Priceline, American Express and Yahoo.


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