School’s out for the summer, but back to school marketing plans are starting right now. Back to school shopping will kick off in July, and marketers will need to be ready to address the latest back to school trends.

School’s out! Well, for students anyway. They’re not even thinking about back to school shopping right now. But as a marketer, you are.

Back to school shopping kicks off in July, which means the marketing planning and strategies are being formulated right now. There’s a lot of back to school trends, consumer behaviors, and demands to keep up with. We’ve created a list of eight essential shopping trends and marketing strategies for affiliate advertisers and publishers.

Table of Contents

1. Start Planning NOW!
2. Expected Growth in Q3
3. Who Are the Back to School Shoppers?
4. Breakdown of Consumer Shopping Windows
5. How Shoppers Plan to Spend Their Money
6. Back to School Shopping Timeline
7. Most Popular Back to School Supplies
8. Most Popular Back to School Clothes

1. Start Planning NOW

Back to school shopping is the longest shopping period of the year, spanning from mid-July to mid-October each year. However, recent trends have indicated that back to school shopping is starting even earlier than it normally does. Slice Intelligence noted that back to school online shopping peaked a week earlier in 2016, and if recent holiday shopping behaviors are any indication then back to school shopping may be getting started in early July this year.

2. Expected Growth in Q3

Back to school shopping is the second-biggest shopping season of the year, behind only the Q4 holiday season. That height in consumerism is an opportunity for marketers to capitalize on and boost their Q3 and 2017 overall earnings. eMarketer has predicted that e-commerce spending will be up from 2016, with a 16.4% year over year change in consumer spending, with $109.07 billion will be spent during Q3 2017. Comparatively, shoppers spent $93.67 billion in Q3 2016, and $75.8 billion on back to school and back to college shopping.

3. Who Are the Back to School Shoppers?

Looking for a uniform back to school shopper will leave you searching for awhile because back to school shoppers are large and diverse. Students make up 25% of the US population with 77.1 million enrolled in some form of education, per the US Census Bureau. Of those enrolled, 19.1 million are in college (undergrad or graduate), and 57.9 million are in K-12.

But this only scratches the surface of the back to school audience. Teachers, for example, make up 3.6 million back to school shoppers that collectively spent over 1.8 billion dollars in 2015 on supplies for students. According to Time, most spent $500 on average in 2015, and also noted that 10% spent over $1,000 of their own money.

That’s not all: younger students may rely on their parents’ money for back to school purchases, but they do help make the choices on what to get. Last year we saw the trend of influencer marketing take shape in back to school season, where both parents and students would make decisions based on what they saw the latest celebrities (and their children!) wearing.

We also saw how important free shipping is to parents. According to the NRF, 84% don’t want to make a back to school online purchase without free shipping.

Back to school shoppers are large, diverse, and all have different needs. Targeting the right audience for the right product will be critical in your marketing strategy. In the affiliate channel you can accomplish this by identifying who your audience is, what their needs are, and how your products or publishing platform helps the audience meet those needs. Start making your strategic partnerships now so you can have your strategy in place for when back to school shopping starts.

4. Breakdown of Consumer Shopping Windows

As mentioned, back to school shopping is the longest shopping event of the year. Although we anticipate the shopping season to start earlier, a 2016 survey from eMarketer found that 66% of shoppers planned on doing their back to school shopping between July 4 and Labor Day. Interestingly, 17% said that they plan on shopping on an “as-needed” basis. This makes for an interesting marketing opportunity. Marketers should plan to push their deals early, but also keep them running later in the season for late back to school shoppers who waited until October to buy a notebook that they didn’t need prior.

5. How Shoppers Plan to Spend Their Money

2016 saw electronics and tech command back to school spending, according to eMarketer. Back to school shoppers budgeted $505 for technology and electronics, of which $172 was dedicated to mobile-specific devices. Shoppers planned to spend just under $300 on clothing accessories for the school year, and $267 was budgeted for musical instruments. Traditional school supplies were much lower in the budget, with an average of only $138. Back to school marketers should develop their 2017 strategies with these budgets in mind. Be strategic to help customers find the right products for their budget by offering competitive discounts or highlighting special offers.

6. Shopping Timeline

The Rakuten Affiliate Network analyzed key advertiser verticals for back to school marketing strategies.  This week by week heat map highlights which products saw boosts in sales during back to school shopping, and when they were less sought after. The full breakdown, along with conversion rates in each week for each vertical, is below.

There are some key takeaways that should be highlighted, however. Department stores performed strongest early on during July, which is a likely starting point for many back to school shoppers who aren’t sure of what they need right away but want to assess what’s available, what’s new, and what something will cost. As the shopping season moved into August, we saw a surge in more specific verticals, notably Books & Magazine Stores and Office Products, which indicates that’s when many back to school shoppers are getting their supplies and needed books for the school year.

Fashion should be noted that, although there are fewer peaks in a week-by-week analysis, conversions do rise and stay consistently above 3% from mid-July through Labor Day. This indicates that fashion is likely shopped consistently throughout the back to school shopping period, and should still be a priority for back to school marketers.

7. Most Popular Back to School Supplies

There’s a wide array of back to school products that marketers should be focusing on promoting. We evaluated some of the product categories to see what was more popular among consumers. For younger students who might need coloring and art supplies, we found that 24 packs of Crayons are the best sellers, peaking in July and outselling glue and markers/highlighters by twice the rate. Glue sticks and markers peak in August, and sticks of glue are more popular than bottles for art supplies.

For writing and storage supplies, #2 yellow pencils are the most popular at the beginning of August. They also sell at twice the rate of colored pencils, and far eclipse mechanical pencils, which only sell at 1/6 the rate of the #2’s. Backpacks also have two peaks: mid-July and mid-August. They drop off in sales at the end of August.

8. Most Popular Back to School Clothing

Much like with back to school supplies, clothing will vary based on the demographic being targeted. Back to college shoppers will have far different needs than students going into elementary school. We chose to examine clothing trends for boys and girls headed back to the classroom and found that graphic t-shirts, jeans, and hoodies were widely popular for both genders. Socks were also popular for boys and sold in large quantities for mid-August.

For shoppers who need uniforms rather than the latest fashion trends, we found that school uniform orders peaked between July 24 and August 13. For the fashion shoppers who have stricter rules to follow, unisex polo shirts were the most popular item. Gender-specific wise, boy’s polo shirts sold at twice the rate of girl’s, but uniform pants sell at the same rate regardless of gender.

This only scratches the surface of popular clothing for back to school shopping, however. Back to school and back to college shoppers who are searching for new wardrobes will be looking for diverse clothing styles, from the hoodies and shirts for class, to the dress shirts for going out on the weekends. Using influencers and content publishers to help highlight the latest trends and available products, as well as making placements with deal sites, can help drive results for the wide back to school and back to college audiences.

This is a great way to start understanding the back to school landscape, but there’s plenty more strategies and opportunities to employ during this huge Q3 shopping period. For more insights be sure to regularly check back on this blog for our back to school strategy content!