What Do We Really Know About Back-to-School Shoppers?

The end of the summer is an important time for families — routines change, friendships form, interests emerge.
But the end of summer is just as important for retailers. Back-to-school shopping is the second largest retail period of the year, and it can make or break a brand’s success for the entire year.
Because of this, retailers who sell everything from school supplies and backpacks to personal tech and clothing invest millions of dollars into identifying, understanding and targeting the right audiences for their back-to-school goods. Complex ad campaigns are rolled out, inventories are rearranged, seasonal employees are hired.
But back-to-school shopping is itself in a state of transition. Each year, more of the shopping moves online, and various product segments ebb and flow in terms of popularity.
And this just raises the important question: What do we really know about back-to-school shopping? How do consumers think about shopping for the school year? How is the general audience subdivided into smaller categories? What influences consumers’ decisions to purchase from one retailer over another?
In this article, we use 5 years of social data (and millions of posts) to answer these questions and provide retailers with a deeper understanding of how consumers think and talk about back-to-school shopping.
Ultimately we decided to tackle this problem with the intention of providing two things:

  • A bird’s eye view of back-to-school shopping and how it has evolved over the years
  • A snapshot of back-to-school shopping as the 2016 season wraps up

The findings laid out in this article will also set the stage for our complete Retailers Guide to Back-to-School Shopping, which will dig much deeper into the demographics, preferences, and tendencies of shoppers so that retailers can create the perfect blueprint for engaging back-to-school shoppers. You can sign up to have the guide delivered directly to your inbox as soon as it is published by  registering at the bottom of this page.
But until then, dive into this article for a primer on what social analytics can teach retailers about back-to-school shopping’s past, present and future.

1. School Shopping Moves Online

The last decade or so has seen the steady migration from brick-and-mortar to online shopping, and back-to-school retail is no exception. Each year a larger share of school shopping moves online, and that trend is only expected to accelerate in 2016 and beyond.
When we analyze the social conversation surrounding back-to-school shopping, we see this trend playing out. For example, using Crimson Hexagon we filtered for posts mentioning the top (non-college) back-to-school retailers and tracked their respective shares of the conversation over the last five years. The data was clear: Amazon has steadily moved up the ranks.
From less than 5% of the conversation in 2012 to nearly 20% last year, Amazon has quickly sharked up a large percentage of the back-to-school shopping discussion. There is no reason to think this trend will stop, or even slow.
And it’s not just conversation — shoppers are actually putting their money where their mouths are and buying a growing share of their back-to-school purchases from online retailers. A recent article in The Journal reports that survey respondents plan to do at least a quarter of their total shopping online.
Clearly, much of the social conversation surrounding back-to-school shopping — as well as the shopping itself — now takes place online. But what are these consumers discussing and buying?

2. The 3 Conversations

We tend to think of back-to-school shopping as a single entity, but actually it’s many. Not even accounting for back-to-college shopping (which has completely different rules of engagement), it’s actually more useful to think of back-to-school shopping as an umbrella covering three main distinct shopping channels:

  1. Supplies
  2. Backpacks
  3. Clothing

When we analyzed the total back-to-school conversation, we found that those three specific topics accounted for almost 40% of the volume. When people talk about back-to-school shopping online, these are the product categories they’re talking about.
More important than the simple fact that there are three major back-to-school shopping topics is the fact that the audiences of these topics are drastically different.
In our upcoming report on back-to-school shopping, we will analyze the differences among these audiences and create a blueprint for how retailers can successfully target them. You can sign up to receive the report directly to your inbox at the bottom of this page..
The who and where aspects of this conversation, but they’re also missing an important piece of the puzzle: when do consumers really discuss and carry out back-to-school shopping?

3. Last-Minute Cramming

Although people start discussing next year’s school year almost as soon as the previous one ends, that conversation is truly dwarfed by the volume seen in August.
Although this isn’t too surprising on its face — August is the natural time to shop for the new school year — the sheer discrepancy between August and the other months is staggering. In fact, in 2015, August accounted for more back-to-school shopping conversation on social than May, June and September combined.


Understanding the composition of the back-to-school shopping audience and its preferences is critical for retailers trying to take part in the larger conversation. Social analytics is the perfect tool for uncovering these insights because it taps directly into consumers’ thoughts about how, when and where they talk about back-to-school shopping.

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