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Back-to-School Shopping – Q3's Biggest Sales Driver

As shopping events go, the Back-to-School shopping season is a big deal for retailers.  The National Retail Federation last year forecasted K – 12 and college spending for Back to School to reach $84 billion US dollars, making Back to School the second biggest consumer spending event behind the winter holidays. Within the CJ Network, the Back-to-School season means a healthy lift in sales beginning in mid-July and lasting through September.  Such a long sales period holds a wealth of opportunity for publishers and retailers and merits closer inspection.

US Census reports that 45% of US households have children under age 18, which means about 38 million families between July and September are on the hunt for electronics, clothing, shoes, school supplies and (for college shoppers) dorm or apartment furnishings.

In order to better understand the Back-to-School shopper, the CJ Insights team examined the network’s 2012 July – September sales with these questions in mind: What are the peak shopping days for Back to School purchases?  Is there a clear preference for when shoppers buy certain items, such as clothing, shoes and computers? What types of affiliate sites are attracting and converting Back-to-School shoppers?

Peak Days? More Like Peak Weeks

We like to use heat maps to understand sales trends over an extended time period, and the heat map image above for August daily sales (in relevant Back-to-School categories) says it all. Shopping begins as a slow burn at the outset of the month (excluding weekends) and reaches a boil the week of August 20 that continues through the end of the month.

The categories which showed the most growth in sales during the red “hot” days were Computer Hardware, Consumer Electronics, Department Stores, Shoes, Books and Women’s Apparel.

(Children’s Apparel category sales followed a slightly different pattern, peaking a bit earlier during the week of August 13.)  Advertisers and publishers can put this ramping and peaking pattern to work for them and optimize Back-to-School efforts on the most promising days. The corresponding days this year will be August 19 – 23 and August 26 – 30, but August as a whole should be seen as the month to attract shoppers with Back to School deals and promotions.

Textbooks

For college-aged students, Back-to-School shopping has evolved to include the purchasing or rental of textbooks from sites like Textbooks.com, Bookrenter and Chegg. The popularity—and sales volume— of these sites continues to grow, but publishers should take note: the opportunity to reap the full benefits of promoting textbooks occurs in August, when most of the sales activity occurs, as shown in the monthly sales distribution graphs below.

BTS Spend Exceeds Holiday Spend

One (perhaps) surprising fact about the Back-to-School season is how the total spend amount per shopper compares to the shopper spend for holiday gifts. The Back-to-School shopping budget is traditionally greater than the holiday shopping spend, which averages $750 per shopper (source: National Retail Foundation).

The overall net spending for Back-to-School shoppers differs according to the age of the student—K-12 shopping spends averages $874 and spending for colleges averages $1,135.  

That said, Back-to-School shoppers shop with the intent to fulfill their shopping needs at the lowest price possible.  According to Shop.org, tightening household budgets last year were driving shoppers to change their shopping behaviors: 56% of Back-to-School shoppers said they would be “shopping for sales more often” and 45% responded they will be “using coupons more”.

CJ Network sales data for Back to School 2012 supports that Back-to-School shoppers are as deal- and value-conscious as ever… and growing. Back-to-School sales through loyalty and reward publishers averaged 22% year-over-year growth, while coupon sites sales averaged 37% growth.

In addition, CJ Network sales reflected that shoppers last year showed a growing interest in visiting and shopping through content sites. Content sites last year averaged a 44% growth in sales and 34% growth in clicks.

Labor Day Sales Draw Big Crowds

In our analysis of Back to School-related sales in the CJ Network, September sales did not show as clearly a defined growth pattern as August in the relevant categories, but with one (very large) exception—Labor Day. Last year, sales on Labor Day outperformed any other day for the time period examined, proving that Labor Day sales events can draw sizeable, albeit virtual, shopping crowds online.  Shoppers, likely due to strong discounting, showed a willingness to spend part of their holiday shopping for computers, software, children’s apparel, shoes, home goods and consumer electronics.  In many ways, Labor Day is the 3rd Quarter’s version of Cyber Monday and deserves a similar coordination of efforts and promotion from both publishers and advertisers.  Labor Day this year falls on Monday, September 2.

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