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The Valedictorians of Back to School Shopping

5 MINUTE READ | August 16, 2018

The Valedictorians of Back to School Shopping

In many ways, the back-to-school season finds me coming full-circle. Once again I’m faced with the nervousness, the excitement, the “back-to-school jitters.” I have superiors to impress, and associates to both co-operate and build relationships with. I am once again judged on my critical thinking, my typing, my spelling, my rhetoric, and – lord, help me – my math skills. As I get ready each morning, I fill my bag with my supplies for the day (I’ve traded the contents up from a composition notebook and a folder to a Macbook and a Moleskine these days), and I head to that familiar place where I will surely, without a doubt, learn something new.

I can confidently name you three companies whose employees are undoubtedly sharing these feelings and really, I could almost-as-confidently say they are likely feeling them more intensely than I am. They are Target, Walmart, and JCPenney. If you’ve made it this far in the post, I will assume that you have the intelligence to read and therefore the intelligence to determine why this statement is true. A (made-up) statistic that might also aide your deduction is that there’s a roughly 99.99% chance that you’ve shopped for school supplies at one of these storefronts at least once in your lifetime.

back to school

You’ve seen the displays, you’ve seen the crowds, you have some idea of the amount of revenue that these behemoths are drawing in with the help of those lovely teacher-provided school supply lists. Allow me to add some concrete numbers to your general idea: these companies each spent an average of $31.9 billion on back-to-school advertising last year. Even this whopping number reflects a 44% reduction over 2016’s spend for #1-spending-Target (-15% for Walmart, +3% for JCPenney). All-in-all, it’s no secret.

I’ve got another shocker for you: mass merchant-format retailers were the back-to-school-season-revenue kings last year. Surprised? Me neither. Surprised that it’s about to happen again? Same. They’ve got advantages that are undeniable – a one-and-done trip to Wally World sounds nice compared to three separate trips to Office Depot, Macy’s, and Best Buy, especially when your four kids are scream-crying about who gets the Spider-Man backpack and who gets the Ant-Man one.

These stores often have the dedicated business of low-income families as well – 53% of low-income households prefer mass merchants when shopping for BTS clothing and accessories. Change that category to solely school supplies and watch that share rocket up to 70% (copy-paste that number to middle-income families while you’re at it). There’s an undeniable ownership of the market, so what do you do if you’re not an annually returning top-10 BTS spender?



Allow me to rattle off a few numbers that may loosen the gigantic store-stranglehold mentality I may have just imposed on you. Mass merchant stores are dead last in average spend on BTS clothing and accessories. They are second-to-last in this regard when looking at the category of “Electronic Gadgets/Computers and Hardware” (hmmm, I wonder if this area will see any sort of opportunity expansion or growth over the next few years).

Finally, despite their might, discount stores fall right in the middle of the pack when it comes to an often-back-of-mind back-to-school sect: college students. 49% of “back-to-college” students are planning to shop online for their BTS gear as opposed to just 35% preferring discount stores, 64% of freshman in this group are planning to spend big money on new electronics for the school year – want to double up on the perceived opportunity? Layer that stat in with the second one in the paragraph above this one.

If your goal is to drive some of this back-to-school craze to your business and you haven’t started yet you have two options. Number one is for the optimists: GO NOW! You’ll have time for this later! The season is in full swing, and any message you can get out there can net you at least a piece of that only-less-than-Christmas revenue stream. Number two is for the pessimists: keep reading. The end is near. You’ll get ‘em next year champ. Two-thirds of the back-to-school shoppers did their shopping before August, and each of those shoppers spent $100 more than their procrastinating counterparts. You might get a few of these August penny-pinchers, but the competition is fierce, and they’ve been doing this since June.

back to school

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I suppose there’s a third option, and I’ll trust that most of you fall in this category (heck, you’re here reading this, so chances are you’re pretty smart). The third category is for you folks who are taking a break from campaign optimization to read this because you were one of the folks who were heads-down in June. Your strategy is in play, your clicks are rolling in, your orders are through the roof, and your superiors have big ole smiles plastered across their faces. And to that, I say, A+, friend.


Posted by Blake Lucas

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