When it comes to back-to-school selling tips for eCommerce merchants, there are certain strategies that can seriously help drive sales. On top of that, there’s an enormous amount of back-to-school products and supplies that eCommerce sellers should source to make maximum bottom-line impact during this peak shopping season.
In fact, back-to-school and back-to-college shopping season is rivaled only by the winter holidays as the top “spending holiday” in America, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF).
That’s why we’ve done extensive research and put together this informative post to help you plan your back-to-school selling strategy.
Keep reading so you’re ahead of the competition when parents and students start shopping.
Start back-to-school selling early (That’s why we’re posting this in June!)
You may be thinking: “The school year literally just ended in many parts of the country, so why is Informed.co posting about back-to-school selling now?”
Yet, according to Google search data, queries related to back-to-school saw a strong uptick the week of July 11th, possibly due to Amazon Prime Day sales.
As you can see in the chart below from Google, the number of search queries around late June and early July has risen with each passing year — and they’ve started rising earlier.
On top of that, the chart below from the NRF shows that over 73% of consumers plan to start back-to-school shopping at least three weeks prior to school starting, with 22.2% planning to start back-to-school shopping at least two months before school begins.
The NRF also found that 68% of parents will receive back-to-school supply lists at least one month before school starts.
That means parents and students alike will already be thinking about purchasing products for the next school year in early summer.
We recommend that you begin sourcing back-to-school supplies and products now so you can make the most of early-bird shoppers — and have inventory on hand once the rush begins to pick up full steam.
One way to discover what back-to-school shoppers will be looking for is to use Walmart's new School Year Hero tool to search for class supply lists based on zip code. Simply enter a zip code on the page and Walmart will return results for schools in that specific area.
If no lists exist for specific schools, you'll still be able to find the most common school supplies by grade, as you'll see here for students in grades 3-5.
And, if you sell on Walmart Marketplace, don't forget that you can take advantage of Informed.co's Walmart repricer to constantly win the Buy Box and keep your listings as competitive as possible during the back-to-school sales rush.
Target all age groups from preschool to grad school
It’s important to remember that you should target students of all ages when it comes to back-to-school product sourcing.
From preschoolers to grad students, you’ll be able to find customers looking to buy back-to-school products for students of all ages.
So, when formulating your strategic product mix, consider all of the following demographics:
• Elementary school
• Junior high school
• High school
• College undergraduates
• Graduate student
Trade school and specialized school students, such as:
• Culinary school students
• Technical school students
• Performing arts students (musicians, theater students, artists, etc.)
You can even specialize your product mix for students who go to boarding schools, religious schools, and schools where uniforms are required, which your competitors may not think of.
Each of these student demographics will have a different set of ideal target products. So, the more you brainstorm about what items will be in-demand by these groups, the more you’ll be able to offer a diversified product mix—and the higher your potential for record-breaking sales will be.
Think beyond traditional back-to-school supplies to other product categories
If you’re stuck on pencils and notebooks as potential high-selling back-to-school items, don’t fret. We’ve got plenty more back-to-school product ideas to help you round out your inventory:
Backpacks and carrying equipment:
• Messenger bags
• Laptop cases
• Gym bags
• Insulated lunch bags
• Brown paper lunch bags
• Plastic sandwich bags
Notebooks, binders, paper, and organization:
• Spiral notebooks
• Composition books
• Lined paper (wide-ruled, college-ruled)
• Three-ring binders
• Sticky notes
• Staplers and staples
• Folders (with and without holes to fit into three-ring binders)
• Reinforcements (perforated, circular stickers to keep binder paper from being torn out)
• Ballpoint pens
• Felt-tip pens
• Wooden pencils
• Mechanical pencils
• Pencil sharpeners
• Correction tape
• White out
Arts and crafts:
• Colored pencils
• Safety scissors
• Glue sticks
• Scotch tape
• Construction paper
• Scientific calculators
• Voice recorders
While eCommerce will increase in general during back-to-school season, the most popular back-to-school product categories are:
• Electronics and tech
• School and office supplies
• Clothing and accessories
• BMVD (books, music, video, DVD)
•Toys and games
• Sporting goods
For specific suggestions, check out this post on the best brands and models of back-to-school supplies eCommerce sellers can source for many of the items you find above.
The most lucrative back-to-school product categories
The most lucrative categories during the back-to-school rush are clothing/accessories and electronics.
According to Adweek, half of the parents of kids in kindergarten through 8th grade are considering purchasing tablets for their children to use in class. And for virtually every college student, having a laptop or desktop computer has become a requirement.
This and other aspects of the back-to-school buying frenzy present an enormous opportunity for savvy sellers to use strategic product bundling to drive sales of high-ticket items and slower-selling accessories, such as tablet cases, keyboard covers, and screen protectors.
Consider bundling laptops with laptop bags and USBs or backup hard drives; popular sneakers with a set of gym socks and a gym bag; and art supplies like markers and colored pencils with erasers and sketch pads.
The chart below, created by the NRF, showcases how much money shoppers will spend across the four main back-to-school product categories, with the top two (clothing & accessories and electronics) pulling in 65% of the $674 that is spent on average for back-to-school shopping:
Source trendy back-to-school products for high school students
High school students tend to care more about what’s trendy than any other student demographic. That’s why it pays to be on top of the current trends leading into the back-to-school shopping season each year.
Consider what brands were popular in terms of backpacks and footwear in 2016:
While 2016 seems like eons ago already, some of the products on this list were still popular in 2017, while others were as obsolete as Atari (see: Pokemon backpacks). Do extensive research on trending clothing brands and styles, as well as popular backpacks, shoes, and electronic equipment to see what's expected to be popular in 2018.
So many teens are fueled by having a piece of what’s trending. So if you stock the trendiest back-to-school products in large quantities, you’ll be able to keep selling once your competition runs dry.
Source back-to-school supplies for college students
When you think of products for college students, the first thing that should come to mind is the vast amount of products that are perfect for dorm life.
From shower caddies and waterproof flip flops to cork boards, closet organizers, and lava lamps, there are very specific back-to-school products for college undergraduates and grad students that can help boost your bottom line.
Online sellers should be thrilled to know that over 40% of back-to-college consumers plan on shopping online.
Amazon also offers a special discounted version of Prime for students, aptly named Prime Student. Consider offering one-time coupons, a.k.a. promo codes (see the video below for a quick primer of how to do it) on items you know will be enticing to students so they’re compelled to purchase from you instead of your competition.
Need more ideas of back-to-college products that are likely to sell big? Check out these top-rated college dorm room accessories on Amazon.
Back-to-school eCommerce sales by the numbers
In 2016, online sellers helped grow eCommerce for the back-to-school season to record highs. During the 2016 back-to-school season, eCommerce in the US alone generated approximately $64.5 billion in sales, and this year is expected to be even better.
According to eMarketer (which reflects slightly different numbers from the NRF’s), eCommerce for the 2017 back-to-school season increased by an estimated 14.8% to $74.03 billion in the US.
That number would equate to an 8.6% share of total US back-to-school sales (up from a 7.8% share in 2016), which eMarketer predicted to have increased to 4% to $857.18 billion from $824.56 billion in 2017.
The NRF’s estimate of $857.18 billion in sales accounts for 17% of total retail sales for the year — a staggering number that should have every online merchant’s eyes widening with anticipation.
Take a look at the chart below to help put the NRF’s estimate even more into perspective:
Yory Wurmser, a senior analyst with eMarketer, had this to say about eCommerce back-to-school sales in 2017:
Ecommerce growth this year comes on top of a strong year in 2016, making it that much more impressive. Younger consumers that shop in preparation for going back to high school and college actually prefer shopping online, so ecommerce growth should continue for the foreseeable future.
Below is a chart showcasing the projected sales for core eCommerce product categories (see the note below the chart for specifics about what categories are included) for the back-to-school sales season of July and August:
Note that eMarketer excludes home goods from its definition of “core back-to-school product categories” even though many products for college dorms fall into this category and contribute heavily to back-to-school sales.
Offer a mobile-friendly customer experience
Google also reported that In July 2016, 60% of back-to-school searches happened on mobile devices, and there was an increase in mobile searches of 35% from July 2015 to July 2016.
That means you must make sure that your online store is mobile-friendly. If not, you’ll miss out on what could be the easiest sales of the year.
Advertising firm Rubicon Project conducted their second annual Back-to-School Consumer Pulse Survey in 2016 and found that 60% of parents planned to use mobile shopping during the back-to-school season. Even more telling, 30% of parents surveyed were planning to do at least 25% of back-to-school shopping via mobile.
So, shore up your mobile situation before back-to-school eCommerce sales get fully ramped up.
Back-to-school selling tips to drive even more sales
Before we go, we want to leave you with a few more back-to-school selling tips to help you surpass your sales from last year’s shopping season.
First and foremost, we advise all sellers to offer free shipping during the back-to-school and back-to-college sales season.
The NRF reports that 84% of parents won’t make a purchase online without free shipping being attached to it. And, with 77% of parents being required to buy supplies for their kids, this is a fairly captive audience for online sellers to tap into, pending they make their offers enticing enough.
Another strategy for eCommerce sellers to employ in their effort to drive back-to-school sales is to be active on social media.
Even if you sell the same products as many other sellers on Amazon or Walmart, you can still differentiate and highlight your listings by creating engaging social media posts with your store’s Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and/or Snapchat accounts (you do have those, right?). By using beautiful images, you’ll help your posts stand out.
You can also use strategic hashtags to ensure that your posts get found in a sea of social media posts when people are searching for keywords related to the products you’re promoting.
Lastly, don’t forget to include links to your listings to make sure people can get to your products in one click. You can use link shorteners to make the most of your social media real estate on platforms like Twitter (where you have a character limit of 140), enabling you to fit more hashtags into each post.