Back-To-School Shopping Season Offers A Lesson For The Holidays

Next to the winter holidays, the back-to-school season is the second-biggest selling period of the year for U.S. retailers. However, after a disappointing back-to-school shopping season, forecasters are already predicting a weak holiday shopping season

With Black Friday and Cyber Monday -- the start of the holiday season and two of the busiest shopping days of the year -- fast approaching, now is the time to look at what the back-to-school season can teach us to help prepare for success through the winter holidays.

One of the defining characteristics of this past back-to-school season was how early it started. This season, Google asked a sample of shoppers when they expected to do their back-to-school research. Not surprisingly, the findings suggested that research would peak in mid-July, before the purchasing peak in August. But does the actual data match these responses?



To answer that question, consider impressions data for product reviews and Q&A content for key back-to-school product segments. In particular, reviews are one of the most influential sources of content used to inform a purchase decision, meaning that a person reading a product review is researching a near-term purchase, if not actively shopping.

With that in mind, we analyzed impressions data for reviews and Q&A content across a sample of our top consumer electronics and office supplies retailers -- product categories that are as hot as the summer sun in the back-to-school shopping period. What we found is that shoppers did their research even earlier than they said they would -- a few weeks before the Google study predicted. Shoppers this year used reviews, asked questions, and read answers from consumers and brand reps alike to get information about back-to-school products as early as mid-June!

As it turns out, our impressions data on reviews and Q&A shows that even though many stores rolled out deals before July 4, the handful of retailers who began promoting campaigns in May -- before many students had finished their school year -- were best prepared for early researchers, especially if their Web sites were stocked with user-generated content (UGC).

Why is UGC such as reviews and Q&A so important? When we looked deeper at the data from the same product categories following the 2012 back-to-school season, we found that visitors who reached a consumer electronics or office supplier product page converted 37% more if they interacted with review content. Similarly, revenue per visit in these industries increased 28% and 48%, respectively, when site visitors read reviews. And these stats are only for those single-session buyers, who were quick to make a purchase decision. Imagine the cross-session and in-store impact -- which are more difficult to capture -- on items such as laptops. These higher-consideration items are likely to require multiple trips to the product page, and perhaps result in an in-store purchase after much online research.

Turning again to the upcoming holiday shopping period, the lesson from the back-to-school data is that shoppers are researching early -- earlier, in fact, than the already extended marketing campaigns -- and retailers would be well-served to ramp up their campaigns to help shoppers make better purchase decisions with review content. Last year, data from the Bazaarvoice network showed that UGC impressions jumped 5.5x from the November baseline on Black Friday and over 4x on Cyber Monday. The peaks on these days may not be surprising, but notice the calm before the storm. Impressions begin to climb early on, indicating usage of reviews and Q&A up to a week before Black Friday. Marketers need to get content ready before these critical spikes, so that they are ready for the initial surge of research activity that will only continue to grow at a tremendous rate.

With only marginal sales gains expected this November and December, the 2013 holiday shopping season is shaping up to be ultra-competitive. The data shows that reviews from other consumers will play a major role in attracting holiday shoppers and helping them decide how to spend their gift-giving budget.

To make the most out of the closing months of the year, put UGC at the center of your selling strategies -- perhaps even sooner than you think you should.

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