Online surge for back-to-School

Online sales jump, but retail is still the dominant force in the US BTS market


According to data from research firm NPD, online sales during the start of the 2014 back-to-school (BTS) season in the US increased by more than 20% as consumers increasingly turn to the web for their school and college supplies purchases. NPD’s Weekly Retail Tracking Service showed that for the seven weeks to 23 August, online BTS sales rose by 22% versus the same period last year.

It’s certainly an eye-opening number, but then online sales are growing from an extremely small base – at $153 million for the period covered, e-commerce represents just 6% of total BTS spend, while bricks-and-mortar retail stores (excluding food and drug chains) account for a whopping 88% of the total. Parents and students still clearly prefer a trip – or several – to physical stores at this time of the year.

Nevertheless, online is definitely gaining share, with a one point shift in sales away from bricks-and-mortar stores to the e-commerce channel, says NPD.

Overall, NPD points to a healthy BTS season for traditional office supply categories this year. Total sales in that seven-week period to 23 August (excluding the food and drug channels) were up about 2% versus last year and in three of the channels that NPD tracks – bricks-and-mortar, grocery and e-commerce – there were volume increases.

Use of school lists

The research firm points to the importance of school lists, with about 75% of consumers using some form of list while they shop. NPD also tracks the content of school lists through its School List Database and says that writing instruments show up on almost every list. 

Other writing products such as correctors and markers are also common items, showing up on about 60% of tracked lists. Depending on the category, teachers may also highlight a brand preference or specify numbers of items to be purchased.

"Back-to-school shopping within the office supplies industry and beyond continues to evolve with the prevalence of products and promotions in the online channel," notes Leen Nsouli, Office Supplies Category Specialist
 at the research firm.  

"Understanding the dynamics behind BTS shopping behaviours, influencers and purchase selections is critical to effectively competing in this market," she concludes. 

Back-to-school buying intentions

The second annual back-to-school buying intentions study conducted by TrendSource has determined the main drivers behind BTS purchases.

Shoppers will use all manner of outlets to purchase, from department stores to office supplies dealers and online retailers, with 87% of those surveyed planning to visit big box stores for school supplies. Overall, 91% of respondents indicated they would be shopping for school supplies, with 71% stating they would spend $100 or less on this product category. Crayola, Mead and BIC were the brands most top of mind.

Over half (55%) of respondents planned to spend $300 and above in the computers/electronics category, with 33% seeking HP products followed by 27% wanting to purchase Apple devices.