Your Smart Guide to Back-to-School Marketing

Looking for something more recent?  Read the 2018 Back to School Trends by clicking here

Woot! Woot! It’s that time again.

Back-To-School season is already in full swing. Or at least the fun part of Back-To-School… when kids are technically still on summer vacation, but get to go shopping for whatever is hip and happening in the world of lunch boxes, backpacks, school supplies, and high-fashion apparel.

Come to think of it… I’m in the market myself for a new Trapper-Keeper (which, believe it or not, is currently making a come-back).  I haven’t seen them around in, like two decades.

Anyway, if you happen to be the numbers geek at your job (or just pretentious), this is the post for you. It is jam-packed with every statistic you can possibly want to have about branding your goods and marketing your wares during the retail holiday that is Back-To-School. Plus (bonus!) I’m going to give you bankable advice on how to nail your marketing and advertising efforts.

Just how big of an opportunity is this, really?

Believe it or not, Back-To-School season is the second largest retail holiday in the global sales are expected to reach a staggering 828.81 BILLION DOLLARS (that’s billion with a B) up 2.6% from last year, with about 10% of that number being US sales. Again, that's 

Back-To-School season has held court as the second largest retail holiday in the US for quite some time now, bested only by the jolly, emotion-fueled buying-frenzy that happens every year between the end of November and first of January. If that shocks you, you’re not alone. Just like you, I was scratching my head about precisely how many Trapper Keepers, colored pencils, and cigarette-legged pants $828.81 billion (with a B) will buy. I now know.

I came across numbers that will help put these outrageous stats in perspective:

  • In the fall of 2015, about 50.1 million students attended public elementary and secondary schools.

  • Of these, 35.2 million were in pre-kindergarten through grade 8, and 14.9 million were in grades 9 through 12. An additional 4.9 million students were expected to attend private schools.

That’s a lot of kids!

Here’s where sh*t starts getting real: For the upcoming 2016-2017 school year, the average household with school kids will spend $606 on back-to-school stuff. But that's not all.

There’s one more tier of “kids” to throw into this kids. Okay, technically, college kids should probably be considered adults. But here in the US, college kids cling to their childhood perks like nobody's business. I and my college cohorts were no exception.

My glass-is-half-full disposition just allowed me to hold on to the belief that Mom and Dad secretly loved continuing to foot the bill for laptops, dorm decor, books, shower flip flops, etc. That said, it’s easy to accept that households who have college kids, are going to spend an average of $1,086 this year... which really jacks up the number in terms of total spending.

So even though Back-to-School time isn't the most obvious of contenders for that #2 slot... 

Lots of kids   +   Spend-happy parents   =   Sales totaling hundreds of billions of dollars. 

So it's a holiday. And you don't want to miss it.  

Time is of the essence

Timing is everything. If you are not a procrastinator - i.e. one of those adrenalin-seeking parents who likes to hit up the local Target store at 8:37 PM the night before school starts - you probably adhere to some sort of Back-to-School timeline that helps you sift through your massive To-Do list, and successfully navigate the waves of shoppers who pass through the stores on multi-stop quests for Back-To-School gear.

The US is one of the few countries that doesn’t have a standardized start date (according to Wikipedia)... So here’s a sampling of how these first-days-of-school vary across the country. If you are doing localized marketing campaigns, this information will probably be quite useful for you.

If you notice, the kids in Seattle are winning while Arizona kids are getting the short end of the vacation stick. Back-to-School shoppers tend to start early, but there’s still plenty of time to organize your campaigns if you haven’t yet started your marketing efforts.

Here’s a breakdown of when people are starting their shopping.

Nearly a quarter of Back-to-School shoppers (24%) have already started searching for deals even before Fourth of July fireworks go off (or laser light shows for those of you who live in towns where fireworks-shaming has become a thing). Next are the July shoppers who make up 32% of all Back-to-School shoppers, followed by the majority of shoppers - the 40% of folks who don’t head out to the stores until August. I imagine the 3% of shoppers who drift in and out of the stores in September are picking up a few missing items and swapping out spiral notebooks for composition books and wide-ruled paper for college-ruled. Keep that in mind as you’re crafting the perfect marketing strategy - Back-to-School shopping rolls in waves.

Depending on what vertical your brand falls into, also consider the fact that buying habits vary quite a bit depending on what’s being bought.

For instance, clothing and school supplies see significant action in July and August while food & snacks see their peak in August. This is super important when you’re vying for attention. You want to put your brand in front of shoppers at the right point in the Back-to-School shopping cycle.

Let’s look for a moment at what’s being bought. Here’s a breakdown of how money is being spent on Back-To-School products. It’s no surprise Apparel, Footwear, and Backpacks are leading the pack... kids like to look cool.

The role pricing plays.

One huge factor affecting purchase decisions is shoppers' unyielding desire to find the best price. Shoppers are now, more than ever, deal-hunting machines - online and offline.

Still, it’s interesting to note that shoppers aren’t nearly as neurotic about price when it comes to supplies and snacks as they are when buying, say, clothes and shoes. Where pencils and food are concerned, quality trumps price.

Another set of stats for ya:

Online deal-hunting went up almost 40% last year, adding fuel to the fire that is discount shopping. With 46% of shoppers pointing to price as one of their top deciding factors and 62% of shoppers fully expecting to spend less than they did last year, brand managers would profit by being mindful of these stats when planning their marketing strategies.

If price is a big deal and one of the top deciding factors for shoppers, you can bet couponing (though not Extreme Couponing like the people on The Learning Channel) is not far behind. In this hurried generation of two-family incomes, playdates, and excessive extra curricular activities, I will let you venture one good guess on how couponing is done today.

If you guessed mobile, you guessed right. I would have also accepted on the run, on the spot, and PDQ (pretty damn quick).

People search for coupons not only on their mobile devices, but also while they shop! A recent study of online coupon-searches found that 59% of the searches performed online containing the word “coupon” were made using a mobile device. When the search query included a top-brand name, they had an even larger percentage that came from a mobile device. For instance, of the shoppers online hunting for Hobby Lobby coupons, 88% of those searches came from a mobile device. For JCPenney, 87% of customers’ coupon queries were performed using a mobile device.

Brands and marketers have a HUGE opportunity here to increase sales and grow their audiences by keeping these stats in mind and creating a strategy that will allow them to be where audience attention is going.

Online Marketing is Super Important for Back-To-School

The wisdom of the Digital Age says online marketing is absolutely non-negotiable for most brands. But “online” is a pretty sizable place, so the best thing any of us can do as marketers is to figure out where the eyeballs are.

This year ecommerce is expected to jump 15.3% and account for 7.9% of total Back-to-School retail sales.

7.9%... I hear you: “A measly 7.9%! Is that it???"

Yeah. That’s it.

But let me remind you that 7.9% of $828.81 billion is $65.42 billion (BILLION... that's 6,542,000,000 Trapper Keepers).  When you take into consideration that many of the products being bought are things like home goods and office supplies (products that are traditionally bought in stores) that number becomes a little more impressive.

Growth in ONLINE spending is exploding.

Big numbers and small percentages aside, I want to drive home the point that what matters is how online experiences factor into the Path-To-Purchase. I actually talked about the Path-To-Purchase quite a bit in past posts, including this one I wrote for Dunnhumby’s Customer Science Blog. Read that post to grab a much more in-depth view of the concept of Path-To-Purchase.

Suffice it to say, back in the day, the Path-To-Purchase used to be a very clear map of the journey consumers took on their way to making a purchase. And here's what it used to look like.

This is what it looks like now.

 Much less like a path and far more like a maze.

Consumers bounce around, across various channels, mixing in-store experiences with the chaos of the online world without any sort of discernible pattern. And because of this chaos, brands are now needing to understand the concept of “Omni-Channel Shopping”.

Omni-Channel Shopping is essentially the idea of presenting buyers with a seamless experience across all channels, allowing discovery, research, consideration, and eventual purchase to happen with fluidity between the digital and “real world” experiences. Wordtracker posted a really cool infographic last year that runs through how this type of experience affects holiday marketing.

And for a slightly different take on this concept, DailyBlogTips has a post where they explain how this multi-channel approach should also be focused on nurturing existing customers... keeping them in the loop, engaging with them. Brands should seek to be their customer's go-to option. Instead of just some random store that someone clicked over to one time ever. 

You knew it was coming; we’ve established the template: Present an idea, back it up with stats. So, here are the cold hard stats on this:

  • Half of shoppers are doing a practice called “showrooming” where they basically look around the store for the products that they want, then they go home and buy those items online.

  • Two-thirds of shoppers do “webrooming” (basically the opposite of "showrooming") where they research their purchases online first, then buy in the store.

  • Two-thirds of people shopping in stores are going on their smartphones at some point to check prices online before making a purchase at the store.

  • Digital interactions that a brand has with potential customers will influence 36 cents of every dollar spent in the retail store.

  • The web will account for and/or influence 59% of retail purchases by 2018.

  • Internet research is a very important part of the decision making process for most shoppers. The categories that are most affected by these reviews are : grocery, apparel & accessories, home improvement & furniture, and consumer electronics.

  • Customers who follow an Omni-channel path-to-purchase are shopping more frequently and are spending 3.5 times more than other shopper types.

  • 84% of shoppers believe that retailers should be doing more to better integrate their offline and online presence.

Back-To-School usage patterns for mobile devices drive home the point that online sales is not necessarily your end goal. Sales are happening offline, but the online world is a huge part of those offline purchases.


Okay. We have the stats. Let’s see how we can turn stats into store traffic.

Most brands target the most obvious demographic while ignoring the ones that actually matter.

There’s a conversation in the hilarious movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, in which the main character’s mother is explaining how she manipulates her husband into doing what she wants without him ever realizing. Her analogy was spot-on. She explained that the husband thinks he’s the head of the household, but the wife is the neck. And, as the neck, she can point the head wherever she wants.

Well, in the case of Back-To-School shopping, Moms might be the ones whipping out their credit cards, but the kids are calling the shots, thus making them the neck, if you're following along with the movie reference from above (that is a bit of a stretch).

Yet brands are still targeting mainly moms.

If 59% of shoppers buy based on their child’s preference, why would you, as a marketer, assume the most effective method for marketing to tech-savvy kids who are perpetually online is through their moms?

Anyone who has kids can attest to the fact that kids can be relentless, especially when it comes to their stuff. Let me tell you, if a kid wants a new Pokemon lunchbox, it doesn’t matter how many yellow cartoon characters grace the front of your Kmart blue-light-special lunchbox, the Kmart box is not going to be received graciously.

You know who else gets overlooked? 

Ding! Ding! Ding! Jackpot!

Dads. Who knew?

On average, dads will spend 37% more than moms, just to save time. Know what else? Only 27% of men (compared to 42% of women) will use their phones to look for coupons while out shopping.

I would bet most dads just want to get in, win, and get out. Unless you’re talking about my dad (tangent time) who takes deal-hunting to the next level, assuming the next level is insanity.

One of the local supermarkets in my hometown made the mistake of giving any product away for free if the price was mis-marked. Well, my dad is like the Rain Man of prices. He goes into the store almost daily, like he’s on the Price is Right and checks the price tags for accuracy. He’s seriously saved thousands of dollars over the years. And we always wind up with multi-year supplies of whatever product was mis-marked. Currently, my parents’ laundry room is filled up with like 40 bottles of Tide detergent and enough razors to last a family of 10 girls an entire year.

Too much information?

My dad’s the outlier. But most dads spend more on Back-to-School shopping than moms.

And still, despite dads being big spenders and kids being a huge motivating factor as well, most brands target women exclusively when handling their back-to-school marketing.

Step up your game, marketers.

Harnessing the power of omni-channel marketing

So we’ve talked about how the omni-channel style of shopping has forever altered the journey that buyers take when making a purchase. But what does that mean to you as a marketer?

Well,  it means you’ve got your work cut out for you. It means you need to figure out what your customers are up to online while making purchase decisions and you need to set up your presence and marketing game-plan around the digital hot spots that affect meaningful portions of YOUR specific target demographic.

Second-to-last set of stats:

  • 27 percent of shoppers plan to organize their shopping lists via Pinboards.

  • 25 percent say that they will be using Pinterest for lunch and snack ideas.

  • Facebook is the most influential platform when it comes to guiding parents’ fashion purchase decisions. A Rakuten Marketing study conducted in the UK showed that nearly one in four parents consults Facebook when looking for inspiration to fill their children’s closets.

  • Blogs and social media are now generating as many purchases as the traditional methods like television and magazines.

  • User generated content accounts for 25% of search results.

How can you harness the immense power of these online channels?

There are many routes you can take to get your product in front of the right audience -  banner ads, Facebook ads, Instagram ads... Each platform can commandeer a notable portion of a brand’s marketing budget to help products get traction during seasonal pushes. You may say, “Simple. I’ll buy up a bunch of online ads” without taking into account that almost 25% of mobile users AND almost 200 million people are using ad blockers around the world. The inconvenient truth is online ads aren’t getting quite the mileage that they used to get.  

My advice would be to tap into the audiences of influential bloggers and social media creators within your space, à la influencer marketing.

If you’re not sold on the notion of influencer marketing, I will direct you to this awesome post we wrote a little while ago describing influencer marketing and why you need it. NOW.

If you’re already sold on it, we’ve got some fun ideas that you can incorporate into your last-minute back-to-school campaigns.

So, listen. Since Back-To-School has already started, it’s going to be hard (not impossible) to slap together your influencer marketing campaigns in time. But we’re the experts over here at The Shelf. And the campaigns we run are beautiful!


So get in touch with Sabrina ( if you want to talk shop. We can help you take advantage of the 2nd LARGEST retail holiday by launching your epic back to school campaigns!