Compete Blog: Back-to-School Shoppers Hit Web Early
By Lindsay Steinbach
a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is an excerpt of a
current article from the Compete Blog. Compete Inc. is a web analytics
company that focuses on understanding how consumers use the internet.
Given the doomsday predictions about this year’s back-to-school spending,
I decided to take a look at the online behavior of back-to-school (BTS)
shoppers for the month of July, and see how their actions compared to
this time last year.
First of all, I tracked some popular back-to-school search terms. I
saw significant increases in the number of these searches this year,
and many websites saw a jump in traffic based on these searches. I focused
on five sites that cater to school shopping needs: Office Depot, Office
Max, Staples, Target, and Walmart.
Based on the search data, it’s clear that consumers are spending more
time this year researching their back-to-school needs on the web. But
I wanted to know more. How did this increase in search translate into
on-site activity? Were people buying more online, or simply finding out
To answer this question, I looked at how many people performed three
key actions on these sites: finding a store, reading the weekly ad flyer,
and making a purchase.
From this information, I noticed that consumers engaged with these
sites at higher levels than they had in July 2008. However, these three
actions increased at vastly different rates. While back-to-school shoppers
did make more purchases online than they had at this time last year,
this jump was much lower than the others. It seems as though visitors
to these sites were more focused on gathering information, as seen by
the significant growth in store locater and weekly ad use.
Some retailers fared better than others in terms of engaging customers.
For example, Staples saw a 95 percent increase in weekly ad views, while
Office Depot only increased by 18 percent. However, Office Depot saw
the largest spike in engagement with the store locator, going from 2
percent of visits in 2008 to 7.1 percent of visits in 2009 – close to
a 250 percent increase. And the highly coveted purchase rate? Office
Depot’s purchase rate grew 47 percent whereas Staples experienced a 30
percent drop compared to last year.
So what can we take away from this data?
First, this back-to-school season appears busier on the web than
it was at this time last year. Either shoppers are turning to the
internet in greater numbers, or people are starting earlier this
year in hopes of finding the best deals.
Secondly, the increased frenzy around back-to-school shopping on
the internet does not necessarily imply a significant increase in
online purchases. Instead, people may be using these sites to find
coupons or to prepare for an in-store shopping trip. For instance,
Staples saw much higher rates of engagement compared to last year
(including a significant spike in weekly ad views), but its purchase
rate actually went down.
No matter what, it’s clear that the back-to-school rush has kicked
off and it’s only just beginning. Shopping will continue to heat up throughout
the month of August, right up until the first school bell rings.
Questions: Are most retail websites serving their role as research
tools for consumers? For instance, are weekly circulars available
and easily accessible online to meet consumers’ needs? What other
information could retailers be providing on their websites?