Winning Over Today’s Back to School Shoppers

For parents, the month of August is jam packed with last minute vacations, camp pick-ups, registration for fall sports, and of course back to school shopping. As a kid, I remember receiving my list in the mail about a month before school started, and promptly heading out with my Mom and sisters to buy all the necessities at the local office supply store.

There was no hunting down specific colors or characters to match the personalities of 3 very different girls. We purchased what was in-stock, and we liked it. But do parents still shop this way? Packing up kids and heading to a physical store has steadily been replaced with online shopping and increased deal hunting, with the effects felt by clothing, department, and office supply retailers alike.

Back to school is the second biggest shopping season of the year, with the same frenzy around seasonally hot items and new releases you’d expect to associate with a major holiday. And much like the holiday season, retailers need to sustain this shopping event for three months extending from when kids are released from school in June until they return in August. To make this more of a challenge for retailers, 80% of parents aim to complete all of their shopping in 2 weeks or less1.

Now, the moment a shopper hits your site, they’re starting a countdown giving you, the retailer, 2 weeks to meet their needs or lose their business.

This calls for retailers to consistently present the most relevant and engaging content available, at any given moment for an individual shopper. As you fine tune your back to school strategy, here are some things to keep in mind:

Parents are shopping across multiple sessions and devices

Over 50% of back to school shopping is initiated on mobile, but like any other time of year, shoppers may hold off on purchasing until they’re on a desktop or have done more research.2

It’s important to identify that shopper, and be able to carry their unique interests into the next session or to another device. But with a quick two week shopping window, retailers shouldn’t rely too heavily on past interests. Instead, they need to respond to changes in shopper intent (e.g. if the shopper was looking at binders and has moved onto shoes) and optimize the experience for the shopper’s new path of purchase.

Parents are shopping for more than one child, with distinct interests and requirements

The average US household has 2 kids (1.87, but let’s round up), and those kids are most likely a year or more apart in age. Not only does that put the kids in different grades, they could be different genders, and more importantly, they could like different things.3

This makes real-time response to intent more important for the retailer. You may have identified a returning shopper, and know from a past session that they were searching for a superhero backpack, so when that shoppers switches to Hello Kitty, the last thing you want to do is try to convince them to go back to superheros. It creates a feeling of resistance for the shopper, where you’re ignoring what they want. And it wastes valuable product recommendation slots for you, by asking a shopper to go back instead of helping them move forward to a conversion.

Parents start browsing and bargain hunting from mobile devices

In 2015, at least 48% of emails will be opened on mobile devices.4 Combine that statistic with the dwindling attention span of mobile email readers and you can’t afford to waste any time capturing that individual shopper’s attention or prompting them to take action.

Your mobile and email messaging need to be on-point during peak back-to-school shopping. Email is a powerhouse, driving traffic and engagement during a busy season, but personalization still widely only means inserting the shopper’s name. This limited view needs to stop, and brands need to start connecting shoppers with individually relevant products that can also be checked off their shopping list. And since the likely next step is for the shopper to click through on the email, the experience and preferences applied in the message should carry through to your mobile site.

When optimizing your site for mobile you should adapt to the shopper’s device, simplify search, navigation, and product detail pages.

These are best practices, but don’t forget about the shopper. Each of these tactics can be further refined based on the who the shopper is, what they like, and what they’ve expressed an interest in.

The last thing to keep in mind is that people are procrastinators by nature, and it’s very likely you’ll have a surge in shopping sessions during the last 2 weeks before school starts.5 It makes sense. Summer activities are dwindling, kids are done growing, or are packing up to return to college.

But this crunch time requires a coordinated effort, focused on each shopper. You can’t afford to make an off-target recommendation, or beat someone over the head with an item they’ve already purchased. That shopper will move on, and quickly. But by looking at the individual and responding to what they need in real time, you can keep more shoppers engaged with your site, increase average order values, and hopefully encourage return visits next season.

1. Google Consumer Survey, July 2015, United States. Based on U.S. online population.
2. Google Search Data, January–June 2015, United States.
3. CIA World Factbook, Estimated for 2015
4. Litmus –”Email Analytics” (Jan 2015)
5. NRF, After Splurging in 2014, Families Trim Back-to-School Spending for 2015 (July 2015)
Hillary Wilmoth

Hillary Wilmoth is the senior product marketing manager at Reflektion. Having worked in merchandising, consumer products, publishing, analytics and technology over the past 9 years, you might think she has ADD; but each marketing role was shopper-focused and research-driven. Hillary is a native of Baltimore, and, no, it’s not exactly like The Wire.