As a parent raising three healthy, active kids, I know “back to school” is a busy time. Between making sure everyone is registered for the school season, ensuring they all have clothes that fit (and are free of holes), and everyone is immunized, there’s barely time left to breath. However, I’m a marketer, too; I can’t help but think about the business side of all this back to school activity. I can’t help wondering how our ecommerce readers are doing with this season…

Back to School MarketingBack to school sales traditionally start at the beginning of August and end in early to mid September. In the meantime, brand name stores are frantically throwing discounts at their visitors in an attempt to grab some of the estimated $83.3 billion in consumer spending*. To put that amount in perspective, the combined spending of K-12 and college runs a close second to the winter holidays.

For K-12, that means the average parent will spend approximately $688.62 on their kids for the school year. –And by the way, this amount leaves out the $129.20 and $95.44 spent on shoes and school supplies (notebooks, backpacks, pencils) respectively.

AdRoll recently published an infographic, based on statistics gathered from the National Retail Federation, PriceGrabber, Accenture and others (Beat the Bell: Back to School Shopping). The statistics are interesting, especially from an eCommerce point of view.

The Winds of Change Blow Toward eCommerce

Online shopping is becoming a large part of our everyday lives, even more so for this back to school shopping season. Recent fiscal events have pointed out that eventually we all have to pay the piper; consequently, we’re moving away from a credit society back to the basics of cold, hard cash. Thanks to the economy, many parents are turning to online stores, sales and search to find the best deals.

What Are They Looking For?

The answer is… everything. Shoes, electronics, pens, pencils, notebooks, backpacks… Little Susie needs new skirts; Johnny needs new jeans. Karen needs new hair ties and barrettes; Steve needs a fancy calculator. Then there are the athletic activities, which call for matching athletic equipment like baseballs, bats, footballs, cleats, running shoes and swimming gear. It all costs money, and parents need to spread the savings.

How the Big Brand Merchants Do eCommerce

Target, Macy’s, Office Depot, oh, my! For every need there is a brand, and for every brand, there is a sale… almost. Big brand merchants – i.e. the well known companies – are going all out.

Back to School Sales: The PPC

Bombarded by marketing…

Toms.com boasts that you can buy today and re-define fashion. BestBuy.com says they have great back to college essentials. Target just says “Back to Schools”. Apple states that students can save up to $200 dollars on a Mac AND get a $100 iTunes card. Staples says you can save on all your back to school needs with new deals every week. Discount school supply offers great prices and fast delivery.

Wow. As a parent, I feel bombarded. As a marketer, I’m shocked at Target’s lack of good grammar. As well, I know that those ad places aren’t cheap for this time of year. Even the big dogs are shooting for ad space. Can the smaller businesses hope to compete here? Probably not – at least not right now.

Back to School Sales: The SERPs

521 million search results, anyone? That’s quite a bit of competition, but that’s just from a simple search. Those 521 million results could include any page that has back, school, sales or other, similar terms. Using the “allintitle” search modifier gives you the “real” competition. While these results may not be actively targeting back to school, the search engines consider them relevant.

  • allintitle:back to school: narrows the results to 3,480,000, but that also includes results like the movie, Back to School. We need to narrow the results a bit more.
  • allintitle:back to school sales – 18,000
  • allintitle:back to school clothes – 13,800
  • allintitle:back to school deals – 34,600

The point? Short tale key terms aren’t the way to go. You have to be diligent in your research and targeted with your terms if you hope to make it into the public’s eye for search.

Back To School Sales: The Sites

Moments of truth in marketing…

Big brand sites are lessons in ad placement. Of course, they can afford multi-million dollar market research – something a lot of SMBs can’t afford. However, the smart entrepreneur can learn a thing or two from perusing branded sites.

Merchants Ready to Profit with Back to School Promotions (Allison Howen, Website Magazine) covers a few of them, such as Apple, who targets college-going shoppers. They also touch on Office Depot, Old Navy, Macy’s, and Target. Even though I enjoyed the article, I’d like to point out three things these sites really do right:

Free Shipping Promotions: Target offers everyday free shipping and easy in-store returns. They haven’t buried this information under anything. Everywhere you look on the site, you’ll find the “free shipping” label at the top of the site, and the statement “free shipping when you spend $50″ under the products. Now, I don’t know what the Target marketing team calls that, but I call it “in your face reminders”. Very nice.

Dedicated to the Cause: Staples has an entire “Back to School” section. Wal-Mart has Classrooms. Both sections are dedicated to back to school savings and allow you to shop by grade or need. Wal-Mart understands their target market, and offers value bundles to meet their needs. Staples shows the buyer their immediate savings. Both companies dedicated an area to their back to school shoppers, making it both easier and less distracting to find what they need. Immediately seeing the discounts allows shoppers to feel successful in being perceptive and thrifty.

Front and Center Marketing: All of the examples – Target, Wal-Mart, Kmart, Macy’s, Staples – use front and center marketing for this important retail season. Notice, please, that while they all have brick and mortar businesses, they’ve also spent quite a lot of time and thought on their online presence in order to grab the Internet shopper. From the time the visitor hits the site in the search for school supplies to the time they close the deal, “Back to School” signs and hokey sayings are front and center.

Learn From Big Brands

You can grab your piece of the 83.3 billion dollar pie. You just have to pick up a few things. For instance, one of the things big brands know is that it’s all about timing. They’ll be taking up the PPC space and the top of the SERPs for a few more weeks while the heavy duty back to school season is still in full swing. You, on the other hand, if you can hold out until they drop out, can grab some of the last big push.

Not all parents bought everything that was needed this season. Many held off, waiting for (drum roll please) bigger sales. Can anyone say “clearance”? Take the next few weeks as an opportunity to tighten your site, cross all your T’s and dot all your I’s. When the big brands back off, be ready with your “Back to School Sale… The Sequel” sale. Have all your marketing in place to roll it off the lines!

If you’re not sure what to do with your site, take the time to peruse the other stores. What have they done for this season? What changes or allowances have they made? How can you take their actions and make them uniquely yours?

The long and the short of it is this: during sales seasons, many eCommerce SMBs get left behind, buried under big business money. It doesn’t have to be that way, however. If you aren’t prepared now, for this back to school season, get prepared for the other seasons (Halloween and Thanksgiving will be here before you know it).

Plan for as many eventualities as possible. Spread your budget to incorporate a marketing expert and get their feedback. Go back to school yourself, and learn how the big brands do it.

*Shopping statistics provided by National Retail Federation and BIGinsight

Many thanks to Tom Fishburne, the Marketoonist, for the use of his humor and cartoons