Back-to-school tip: Start earlier and finish later

Google's Alexandra Cohn gives a lesson on three types of back-to-school shoppers.

back to schoolBy Alexandra Cohn

With the first day of school about a month away, students and parents are already scoping out deals and shopping for back-to-school essentials. In fact, online searches for “back to school” in Canada increased by nearly 60% in one recent week.

After the December holiday period, back-to-school is the single most important shopping season for many brands and retailers. And the way Canadians shop during this key retail window has changed dramatically over the past few years.

Gone are the days of heading to the store and simply picking items off the shelf. Our latest research reveals that the majority of consumers who are planning to shop for school will first turn to trusted sources to research ahead of time (83%) and more than half of those surveyed (54%) tell us they’ll be buying according to lists they make before they purchase.

And Google research has found that there are now three distinct back-to-school shoppers: the early bird, the traditionalist and the wait-and-see.

Early bird shoppers can’t wait

There is a dedicated group of early bird shoppers who start researching next year’s purchases as soon as the final school bell rings. We see a rise in back-to-school online searches beginning the last week of June – basically as soon as school gets out. By the time the calendar hits July, one in four back-to-school shoppers has already begun researching products and 15% will have made purchases for the coming school year.

Traditionalist shoppers start in August

August has traditionally been the peak month for back-to-school shopping and data shows that this trend remains firmly entrenched. Last year, August had eight of the top 10 heaviest-searched days for “back-to-school” related queries (the remaining two are found during the first few days of September), with searches typically spiking on Mondays. Half of all Canadians surveyed this year said they will start their research in August and two-thirds will do the majority of their shopping during this month (33% in early August and 42% later on in the month).

Wait-and-see shoppers bide their time

While back-to-school shopping starts early for many, there is a faithful group that adopts a wait-and-see approach. We found strong online interest in back-to-school spilling into the first few weeks of September, suggesting that many parents and students will wait to see what products emerge as the latest and greatest trends. Which tablet will most meet their needs? Do they have everything they need to set up their new dorm room? Are booties still popular this year? In fact, Google’s latest research finds that one in 10 back-to-school shoppers will only start their shopping once school has resumed, something we also saw during the 2013 back-to-school season.

What does this mean for marketers?

There’s a wider window. The new shopping behaviour of back-to-school consumers requires marketers to approach this extended retail season in a new way. Canadians are now looking for products, services, trends and deals from June right through September. Brands and retailers that start earlier and continue longer will be positioned to have a strong presence throughout their customers’ shopping journey.

Also, understanding the nuances of these different shoppers’ behaviour will help guide marketing strategies when connecting with consumers. For example, a marketer aiming to influence the “wait-and-see” set that’s seeking popular items should consider online video: it’s social, trend-driven and reaches approximately 72% of 12- to 24-year-old consumers.

Meeting customers with the right message, using the right medium, at the right time, regardless of which type of shopper they are, will ensure that when back-to-school purchases are made, you’ll be first in class.

Google2_0177Alexandra Cohn is a research and development manager at Google, specializing in the retail and tech industries.

Featured image via Shutterstock