Search Becomes Latest Back-To-School Battleground

Marketing during the back-to-school season is about more than maximizing exposure through traditional channels; search has become an increasingly important platform. Retailers are competing on multiple back-to-school search terms, encompassing brands, product categories and sales, according to Adthena.

“In this particular instance there’s a lot of hijacking starting to happen,” said Ashley Fletcher, VP of Marketing at Adthena in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “If there’s a recognized brand, then other advertisers will try to jump on that bandwagon too. If you have a compelling product and offer, there’s a good chance you can redirect that user to your brand.”

Adthena conducted a study in which it tracked the market share of several search terms, which was defined as the frequency with which each brand appeared when the term was searched. The research found that Target tried to benefit from Staples’ popularity by bidding on the search term “Staples back to school sale” from Aug. 2 through 19, reaching a high of 40% market share on Aug. 11.

Small, Agile Retailers Hold The Advantage With Generic Search Terms

Retailers also benefited by climbing the ranks for more generic queries, like “back to school clothes.” Young retailers such as Romwe, SheIn and zulily all gained significant market share with the term, helping them compete against established brands like JCPenney and Sears:


  • Romwe reached 77% market share on Aug. 10, the highest of any of the competitors;
  • zulilly topped out at 55% on Aug. 18;
  • While it never hit a massive share, SheIn maintained at least 22% throughout the studied period;
  • JCPenney hit 70% market share on Aug. 13, but didn’t top 45% otherwise; and
  • Sears didn’t bid on the term until Aug. 8, but hit a high of 70% market share on Aug. 9, then dropped significantly and hit a low of 17% on Aug. 16.

“It all comes down to mastering seasonality,” said Fletcher. “In the case of back-to-school, these smaller retailers are able to react very quickly, and we saw from our data that they gained an advantage pretty quickly. With larger organizations it’s quite hard to mobilize your search team and keep the focus on these seasonal trends.”

The agility advantage for smaller retailers also was seen in the results for the search term “back to school sale.” JCPenney, Ebates and Romwe all fought for the top spot from Aug. 2 to 19:

  • Romwe saw the most consistent rise in market share, growing from 22% on Aug. 2 to 65% on Aug. 18;
  • Ebates started at 3% on Aug. 2 to and hit 53% on Aug. 12, but fell to 33% on Aug. 14 before pulling out of the competition; and
  • JCPenney was the most consistent performer, beginning with 38% market share Aug. 2 and reaching a high of 55% Aug. 19.

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