Prime Day Cuts Into $83 Billion Back-To-School Season

It’s not too late for retailers to implement their back-to-school plans: only 45% of families complete their shopping by early August, and 23% haven’t started at all, according to Bazaarvoice. This long season is expected to result in $82.8 billion being spent on K-12 and college students, a survey by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Prosper Insights and Analytics found.

The average family will spend $730 this year, according to a survey by Brand Keys. To take advantage of this opportunity, retailers should keep several factors in mind:

  • Prime Day is now part of back-to-school: The e-Commerce holiday has emerged as a major back-to-school event for the entire industry;
  • Omnichannel is important: While many shoppers still prefer shopping in-store, e-Commerce can’t be neglected;
  • Social media is a valuable tool: Customers are using social media both for research and to make purchases;
  • Make promotions count: The back-to-school season is long, and retailers should be wary of how and when they run discounts; and
  • Don’t fear experimentation: Many retailers are using events and partnerships to stand out during this important season.

Prime Day Is Important Industry-Wide

As back-to-school has stretched to encompass early July, Prime Day is becoming the season’s Cyber Monday. While the event benefits Amazon most, more and more retailers are launching their own e-Commerce promotions to coincide with the holiday, and many are including back-to-school products in the mix.

“Prime Day has really done two things, not just for Amazon, but for all retailers,” said Marissa Tarleton, CMO of RetailMeNot in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “It’s shifted the back-to-school season up, and it’s made it more of a general e-Commerce holiday.”


The level of activity on Prime Day can’t be ignored: 66% of parents planned to make a purchase during the event, and 91% planned to do some some back-to-school browsing. The average family spent $70 on back-to-school supplies on Prime Day alone.

Even the days around the holiday are important: promotions often start before Prime Day proper and run through the entire week, according to Tarleton. The result is a burst of e-Commerce activity that retailers can use to drive online sales.

In-Store Dominates, But E-Commerce Is Vital

Even with the influence of Prime Day, back-to-school remains a season dominated by brick-and-mortar: 96% of families plan to shop in a store at least once, while 72% will shop online at least once during the season, according to RetailMeNot. The NRF and Prosper identified the top destinations where customers shop for supplies:

  • Department stores (57% for K-12, 40% for college);
  • Discount stores (52% for K-12, 35% for college); and
  • Office supply stores (35% for K-12, 31% for college).

The top three product categories for brick-and-mortar purchases are clothing, backpacks and school supplies, according to RetailMeNot. However, consumers are most likely to buy electronics online, a category where the average family is expected to spend $186 this year.

Another 52% of shoppers browse all back-to-school items on smartphones because they can do so on the go. Additionally, a survey by Wiser found several other common reasons customers gave for handling back-to-school shopping through the Internet:

  • Price comparison (82%);
  • Ease of shopping (65%); and
  • Greater variety of options (59%).

Savvy retailers are using multiple channels and touch points for the back-to-school season. Barnes & Noble is leveraging its reputation as a destination for books with an expanded selection of other back-to-school products, such as backpacks and headphones. The company leveraged its e-Commerce site to create pages themed around related products, including Start a New Look, Stay Organized and Stock Up on Supplies.

Social Media Is A Back-To-School Marketing Powerhouse

Regardless of whether a retailer is planning to focus on in-store or online, social media remains an effective marketing platform. This year 92% of retailers plan to reach shoppers through social media channels, and 72% will increase their budget, according to RetailMeNot.

Approximately 47 million people used Pinterest to look for back-to-school ideas in 2017, and the platform expects an even larger audience this year. Retailers advertising on the site can display their products as a way to save parents time, money and energy, according to Amy Vener, Retail Vertical Strategy Lead at Pinterest.

To get the most out of their posts, retailers should design them with the two- or three-word search terms used by shoppers. Most consumers come to Pinterest without a specific brand in mind, and retailers should make it easy to find products by category rather than manufacturer or brand name.

“That behavior is reinforced when you look at the percentage of searches that are non-branded, like ‘lunch ideas’ or ‘backpacks,’” said Vener. “The search activity is 97% non-branded, and that is very different from the typical search engine volume. There, a lot of it is on branded terms where consumers already know what they want and who they want to buy it from.”

Approximately 50% of college students use Pinterest, giving the platform a broad reach with this demographic. When IKEA ran a back-to-school campaign, the retailer focused on keyword targeting and promoted pins aimed at college students shopping for their dorm room, according to Vener. The end result was click-through rates rising 72% compared to the prior year, while the cost per click dropped 37%.

Promotions Are Great, But Experiments Can Stand Out

Promotions drive traffic during the back-to-school season, with 65% of shoppers saying price is the biggest determining factor in what they buy their children, according to RetailMeNot. Additionally, 67% of consumers say they look for savings during this season more than the rest of the year.

Retailers are listening, with 79% planning to offer more discounts this year than in 2017. They should plan their deepest discounts around the largest shopping days of the year: the first weekend in August, which coincides with tax-free days in multiple states, and Labor Day weekend, according to Tarleton.

While not all tax-free days are held during the first weekend of August, nine out of 16 are. The types of school goods normally subject to sales tax varies on a state-by-state basis, according to WalletHub.

However, retailers aren’t limited to standard price promotions, and 75% will try new strategies in 2018, according to RetailMeNot. Some of the promotions being considered by retailers include:

  • In-store events (52%);
  • Brand collaborations (47%)
  • Traveling marketing campaigns (41%); and
  • Food and drinks for shoppers (39%).

Even standard discounts can stand out from the crowd by taking a different angle, such as the 15% discount Target offered teachers purchasing classroom supplies.

“We’ve all heard those stories where teachers supplement their supplies out of their paychecks,” said Tarleton. “Retailers have the ability to get really creative with what they do in-store, whether it’s a back-to-school fashion show, or maybe a makeover or styling event for back-to-school clothes shopping.”

With proper preparation, back-to-school can be one of the most profitable times of the year. Retailers should be ready to promote their e-Commerce offerings for Prime Day, run in-store sales on the major shopping weekends and use social media to drive engagement for all of their events.

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