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High Stakes in Back-to-School Shopping Race

Let the competition begin.  After a hot summer contest of superheroes at the box office, yet another fierce brand competition is now underway—the big box back-to- school race. The BTS shopping ritual itself has been transformed by digital and shifting trends in consumer shopping behavior. Based on data from the National Retail Federation, 25% of back to school shoppers are expected to hold off until 1-2 weeks before school starts. Budget-conscious family shopping behavior is also reflected in the NRF’s data, which shows a 20% increase in delayed shopping over last year.   

While the sprint is officially underway, the stakes are higher than ever this year, with tight family budgets predicted to keep one in three shoppers from engaging in the annual BTS ritual. A downward trend was already evident last year, with a 3.5% dip, according to The Integer Group, who foresees a higher 5% decline in back-to-school shopping this year. Among Hispanics, who generally show a higher propensity for BTS shopping, Integer Group forecasts only 17% will not be shopping, compared to 43% of Caucasians. Integer’s also data indicates that half of all millennial shoppers are using the Internet to complete their purchases.

Other research corroborates the shift in back-to-school consumer behavior. According to a new study from Crowdtap, a leading social influence marketing firm, the majority of shoppers will leverage social for product discovery.  

Following are some highlights from the study:

•   64% of shoppers reported that social media will play a role in their back to school shopping this year.

•   Social media dominated discovery of new products, deals and ideas for back to school shoppers.

•   61% of respondents will use social media sites like Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest.

•   63.5% of shoppers have purchased a back to school item that they found on social media – showing that social discovery leads to purchase. 


Through the lens of a social media analytics platform like NetBase many of the usual suspects rise to the surface.  Increasingly, however, the data reveals a growing trend in the digital transformation of brands.  The resulting new “brand personae” created have been designed to appeal to digital natives and their parents, and they reside and interact where their audience lives.  Another trend among brand content marketers involves adopting native ad campaigns and promoted social contests like JC Penny, with their "Express Yourselfie” campaign.  

Predictably, brand transformation has also evolved the buying experience. On the one hand, creating an ecosystem in which social media brand peer influencers trump advertising. And, on the other, contrary to early ecommerce expectations that digital would lead to the demise of brick and mortar stores, brands with omnichannel strategies have increased overall brand traction and conversions. 

According to a McKinsey report by Devin Wenig, president of eBay Marketplaces, “technology has deconstructed the retail industry” in the last two years.  Wenig stresses that survival will be contingent on a brand’s ability to adopt an omnichannel strategy.

As the NetBase chart below shows, over the past month social engagement in the #BTS shopping arena has been charged. Brands segmented over the past month in social media are largely identified by their brand Twitter handles and digital campaign identifiers. The proliferation of #BTS-related brand marketing suggests morphing brand personae in an era of digital brand transformation, where brand personality is increasingly infused and shaped by Millennials.


Our NetBase analysis also reveals parental stress under the din of the seasonal BTS brand cacophony, with scant relief heard on the brand side.  On the flip side, some Millennials have embraced the #BTS sprint to create their own takes on YouTube, sharing with friends their BTS school bag “haul,” and shopping tips, fashion and makeup faves, style ideas, and the like.

Significantly, too, many of the YouTube videos also share deals discovered by Millennials during their shopping excursions.   Whether they’re engaged on Instagram or YouTube, Millennial #BTS engagement is a de facto expression of brand personality.  For brands and marketers, these channels provide a rich source of attitude, emotion and sentiment research into predictive behavior. 

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