Summer might not be over, but the back to school (B2S) shopping season is already in full swing.

And with households preparing to pour hundreds of dollars into new school supplies, clothes, accessories, and electronics, you should also do some preparation to get in on this lucrative shopping season.

This year close to 50 percent of families buying school or college supplies plan to shop online. And, given that B2S spending now regularly reaches over $80 billion, some serious cash is up for grabs.

To put it in perspective, US households will spend more on B2S shopping than they’ll spend on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and Easter combined.

So how do you go about targeting this market, which items are particularly hot, and what will set your store apart from the rest? Lucky for you class is in session, so sharpen your pencil and read on to learn all about capturing your share of the B2S market.

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Is the Back to School Season a Market Worth Planning For?

Yes! Absolutely.

The National Retail Federation forecasts back to school and college spending in the US to reach $80.7 billion during the 2019 season. Not exactly small change.

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Breaking it down, it’s expected that households in the United States with elementary, middle, or high school students will spend an average $696.70, while those with college students will spend an average $976.78.

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, parents spent almost £1 billion in 2018, while Australian parents parted with an estimated $1.7 billion.

These amounts are spread over categories, including supplies, clothing, shoes, and electronics, so regardless of what you sell, you could be in a position to capture part of the B2S market.

Better yet, the amount of people planning to head online to buy school and college supplies is only growing. Back in 2015 just 35.6 percent planned to shop online versus 49 percent in 2019. All of this goes to show it’s one season worth targeting year after year.

So, if you’ve ever considered running promotions for these special days before, the B2S season should certainly be on your radar.

When Do People Start Shopping for Back to School Items?

art supplies scattered around As you can probably guess, back to school shopping is seasonal and kicks off at least two months before school begins.

Around a quarter of back to school and college shoppers start buying supplies two months before school goes back. However, the majority of shopping for supplies is done three weeks to a month before school begins. And, if you’ve been slow with your B2S marketing campaigns, don’t worry – a large group will do their shopping just one or two weeks before.

So, when exactly does school start? Well, that’s entirely location-dependent and warrants some research. In the US alone, school can start back in either July, August, or September depending on the state. Learning more about when school returns in your core markets will help you better plan your marketing strategy.

For example, schools in Virginia and New York tend to return in early September, so early August is a great time to target these areas. However, schools in Arizona and Georgia have usually returned by early August, so these folks have likely completed their shopping by this stage. When you’re planning your ad, be sure to target specific states and exclude others to make sure the right people see it.

facebook ads geo targeting It’s also worth remembering that countries in a different hemisphere will have different start dates and may have other factors at play.

For example, in Australia and New Zealand the school year starts in late January or early February, coming hot on the heels of Christmas and the new year. Because of this, B2S shopping is done over a shorter time frame and advertising too early means you risk being lost among Christmas, Boxing Day, and New Year’s deals.

And, don’t think this shopping season is over once September arrives. With many colleges only returning in late September, college students in particular are still shopping into the fall.

What Should I Sell for the B2S Season?

Before you start advertising to the B2S crowd, you should know which categories they shop within in so you can adjust your store and marketing accordingly.

The biggest categories for B2S shoppers:

  • Clothing and accessories
  • Electronics (calculators, phones, computers, etc.)
  • Shoes 
  • School supplies (notebooks, pens, backpacks, lunchboxes, etc.)

The biggest categories for back to college shoppers:

  • Electronics
  • Clothing and accessories
  • Dorm and apartment furnishings
  • Food items
  • Shoes
  • Personal care items
  • Gift cards
  • School supplies

Whether they’re at elementary school or college, there’s clearly a lot of spending going to clothing and electronics. And naturally, items in the school supplies category will always be needed by students.

It’s also interesting that those buying for college students plan to spend quite a lot on furnishings. Given that in recent years dorm room makeovers have become popular, homewares could be worthy items to add to your store.

Once you’ve found a good category and have ideas for products, validate them using Google Trends. As you can see above, interest in backpacks go through the roof as B2S season begins, indicating they’re a solid item to sell.

backpacks in google trends Aside from Google Trends, do your own research to find what students might be interested in. For example, while reading about dorm makeovers I noticed that many students used self-adhesive wallpaper to temporarily decorate walls and furniture. Selling this product and marketing it directly at college students could have potential.

Interesting Markets to Target

Traditionally moms have been the main target of back to school shopping and for good reason – they seem to do the majority of it. However, they’re not the only spenders you can target. Here are three alternatives:


Not only do kids influence their parents’ spending but they also spend their own cash during the B2S season. While it’s not the hundreds their parents fork out, US teens are expected to spend an average $35.71 of their own money in 2019, with pre-teens handing over $26.40.

If your store has products that might appeal to this audience, consider targeting them. And, bear in mind that channels such as Instagram Stories could capture this age group better than Facebook or Pinterest.


Interestingly, men are projected to spend much more than women on back to school shopping: $790.30 versus $607.80 for B2S supplies and a whopping $1177.41 versus $786.22 for college supplies. With such a big difference, targeting dads could pay off big time.


Kids aren’t the only ones returning to schools – teachers are too. The reality is that many teachers dip into their own pockets to buy items for their classrooms and are undoubtedly looking for good bargains. Teachers could be on the lookout for furnishings and decorative supplies, or bulk deals on stationary and other similar products.

Smart Tactics for Enticing Customers

Brands know that B2S shoppers are looking for good deals and are only too eager to put forth their best offers. With so many companies all jostling for a piece of the action, you’ll need to make sure your store stands out from the competition.

Parked yellow school buses Free Shipping:

Of the US-based B2S shoppers planning to buy online, 90 percent of them plan to take advantage of free shipping – and for college shoppers it’s 85 percent. This indicates that free shipping is a massive consideration for online shoppers, so if you offer it be sure to refer to it in your marketing.

However, if you offer free shipping but your products have a longer shipping time, be upfront about this. Include your shipping details and policy on your product pages, at checkout, and on a FAQ page. Clearly stating this information allows customers to set expectations and they feel like they’ve made an informed choice.

Upselling and Cross-Selling

If you don’t already cross-sell or upsell in your store, consider starting it. Offering bulk deals is a fantastic way of upselling and it’s particularly useful during the B2S season when families often need to buy items in multiples.

You could also cross-sell relevant items, such as lunchboxes with backpacks or pencil cases with pens. By making your store a one-stop shop you’re giving consumers a bigger reason to spend more with you and less of a reason to go elsewhere.

Emotional Hooks

Don’t forget that B2S shopping can be an emotional time for shoppers. This is a time of big change, with families adjusting as children grow and start their education journey, change grades, or transition to new schools or college. Attending school is a shared experience between parents and kids, and there will be feelings of both happiness and sadness in the mix.

Tapping into this emotion is one angle you could consider for your marketing campaigns. Many brands do this especially well at Christmas time, including UK department store John Lewis and German supermarket chain Edeka, but there’s no reason why it can’t be done for the B2S season as well.


Shoppers frequently depend on recommendations and suggestions from others to make a purchase, so using influencers is a fantastic strategy. Using influencers allows you to harness their credibility and following to sell a product more convincingly than you otherwise would’ve been able to.

Think about who would be influential to B2S shoppers. This could include parent bloggers and Instagrammers for targeting adults, college-age influencers for the lucrative college crowd, or even younger Gen Z-ers (so kids can then influence their parents).

Localized Marketing Strategy

As I mentioned earlier, the date that school returns will vary depending on your country, state, and region and you’ll want to avoid advertising B2S deals to an area where school is already in session. Spend time looking into when school goes back in particular areas and make use of Facebook’s localization options to set up area-specific ads.

Don’t Have a Product for the B2S Market? Don’t be So Sure.

an apple on a stack of books Even if you sell products that you don’t think would be of interest to B2S shoppers, there’s no reason you can’t make money during this season.

The B2S season is a period of massive spending and not all of it is school-related. In fact, 48 percent of women shopping for school supplies will also buy home organization products at the same time.

This indicates that, for consumers, the B2S season represents an opportunity to start new things and make changes. It’s also a time when summer winds down, the colder weather begins, and the holiday season starts.

By thinking about the B2S shopping season slightly differently you can probably tailor it to work your products.

For example, if you sell umbrellas, pitch them as the perfect accessory to buy now before fall starts. Or if you sell jewelry, maybe your advertising hints that the B2S season is the ideal time to change or accentuate your look.

Get creative with your advertising and your experimentation might just be rewarded.


Now that you know the ABCs of the back to school and back to college season, hopefully you’re motivated to ace your own campaign.

By spending time researching and planning your marketing strategy – whether it varies by location, uses influencers, or focuses on offering good deals – you’ll be in a great position to make the most of this shopping period. And, if you miss the Northern Hemisphere B2S season, consider doing a trial run for Australian or New Zealand markets.

Ultimately, the best way to learn if a B2S campaign will work for your store is to give it a try, so get started today.

If you have any tips or questions about making the most of the B2S season, let me know in the comments below.

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