Analysis: The Pandemic’s Impact on Back-to-School Shopping

Pattern Data Science

August 5, 2021

Every year, as the summertime comes to a close, parents open their pocketbooks to stock up on everything from school supplies to new clothes, and everything in between. According to a National Retail Federation survey, in 2019 a household with children in K-12 schools expected to spend an average of $696.70. Total spending on back to school shopping that same year was expected to be around $26.2 billion nationwide.

To say the 2020 school year was unprecedented is an understatement. Students across the U.S. switched to distance learning solutions, and the back to school shopping season was entirely upended.

Back to school season this year, with most schools preparing to return to normal operation, promises to look quite different from last year’s. But what does that mean for back to school shopping in 2021?

We dove deep into our data to learn more about how COVID-19 impacted online demand for back to school shopping in 2020, how things are trending in 2021 so far, and what that might mean for the future.

Which types of back to school categories received the most online demand?

Most parents split their back to school shopping between online and brick and mortar retail shops, depending on the items on their shopping list. So, to start our analysis, we assembled a few prominent types of back to school products covering several common categories (school supplies, clothing, gear, etc.) to see how online demand compared between them.

From January 2019 through 2021 so far, notebooks and writing pads, as well as markers and highlighters, were the most popular online back to school purchases.

Another smaller “office supply” item, tape, was the third most popular. Backpacks and lunch boxes, however, did see quite a bit of online demand compared to many of the other “smaller” items in our analysis.

From there, demand drops quite a bit to other types of school supplies. Children’s clothing, meanwhile, saw very little online demand compared to other types of school supplies. So it appears that when it comes to buying new outfits for the school year, most parents still prefer in-person shopping.

How did the pandemic impact demand for back to school supplies in 2020?

COVID-19 obviously had a monumental impact on the 2020 school year. First, there were the initial lockdowns of March and April, when schools closed their doors and students finished out the school year via distance learning from their own homes.

Late summer and early fall saw a loosening of certain restrictions around the country, with some students returning to the classroom, while others remained at home.

So, to better understand how COVID impacted demand for school supplies in 2020, we’ll take a broad look at those two major periods: the switch to distance learning last spring, and the back to school season in late summer.

March and April are typically slow months when it comes to school supplies, so it’s no surprise that most categories saw a surge in demand during the height of lockdown compared to the same months in 2019.

Colored pencils saw demand increase by a whopping 186%, while drawing pencils also saw demand more than double. This was almost certainly a combination of at-home schooling as well as a desire to find some activities for a house full of locked-down children.

Children’s clothing experienced an impressive 156% year-over-year increase in March and April 2020. This was most likely driven by the widespread closing of all brick and mortar clothing stores leaving parents who wouldn’t otherwise buy clothes online to turn to Amazon for their child’s summer wardrobe.

The only categories that saw demand decrease during this timeframe were those most likely to be needed in an in-classroom setting: mechanical pencils, D-ring binders, and backpacks and lunchboxes.

But what about peak back to school shopping season? How did August and September 2020 compare to 2019?

Drawing pencils continued to be extremely popular, with demand up 115% during back to school shopping season 2020 vs. 2019. In fact, most categories still saw a boost in online demand compared to 2019. Particularly those most well-suited for at-home learning environments.

Popular in-person learning supplies like D-ring binders, book covers, and backpacks and lunch boxes, all saw demand drop even more than during the spring.

So our primary takeaway here is that parents relied heavily on online shopping for at-home learning supplies both during the earliest months of the pandemic, as well as during the peak back to school shopping season.

But what should we expect during this year’s back to school shopping season? Let’s take a closer look at a few key categories to see what the data has to say.

What do early trends tell us about what to expect for back to school shopping in 2021?

We’re halfway through 2021 and most students around the U.S. are preparing for a return to in-person learning. Will parents be less likely to rely on online shopping now that things have begun to open back up?

Let’s start by examining monthly demand for notebooks and writing pads, which were the most popular item in our analysis in terms of overall demand.

Online demand for notebooks and writing pads was remarkably consistent in 2020, mirroring 2019’s trends just at a slightly increased pace. 2021 started the year with demand at an all-time high. It dropped significantly in March, but has remained consistently above 2020 so far.

This suggests that online demand will remain high for basic school supplies even as things begin to reopen. Let’s take a look at a few similar types of supplies to see if this trend holds up.

Online demand for markers and highlighters was consistently higher throughout 2020, even during peak back to school shopping season. 2021 so far has seen demand match 2020’s month-for-month. Whether it exceeds 2020’s back to school season surge remains to be seen, but will tell us a lot about post-COVID’s trends.

Here we see the massive impact that early lockdown had on demand for colored pencils. Spring 2021 saw demand lag far behind 2020’s, when early lockdown brought a surge in demand. We can safely assume that July and August will bring an increase in demand this year, although early trends suggest it may still lag behind 2020’s high points.

So that’s a look at the types of school supplies that were popular for at-home as well as in-school use, but what about the other types of back to school items?

Let’s start with one of the items that saw demand decrease the most in 2020: backpacks and lunchboxes.

Demand for backpacks and lunchboxes dropped dramatically in March 2020 and remained behind 2019’s trendline for the remainder of the year. So far this year, it appears that demand has recovered, and is trending well ahead of 2019’s pre-pandemic levels.

We expect to see demand skyrocket in July and August after last year’s lull, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on this category in the coming months.

D-ring binders, another popular “in-class” item, shows a similar trend to backpacks and lunchboxes. Demand this year has hovered close to what we experienced in 2019, and ahead of 2020, but the real test will be how the next few months pan out.

Finally, let’s examine online demand for children’s clothing:

Here we see the inverse of the trends from the previous charts. 2020 actually saw online demand surge during the height of the pandemic and again during the back to school shopping season.

June 2021, meanwhile, saw online demand plummet to below both 2020 and 2019’s figures. This may be a slight anomaly, or it may be due to a surge in demand in brick and mortar children’s clothing shopping as more stores have begun to reopen.

In closing, it appears that online demand for back to school items will be heavily dependent on the type of school supply. It appears there may be some pent up demand for certain types of back to school supplies that parents were able to skip out on purchasing last year. Some items appear to now be part of a new online shopping routine, while others look to have been only temporary online solutions while waiting for a return to in-person shopping.

A lesson for brands

Our data shows that COVID-19 has had a major and long-term impact on online demand for all types of school supplies.

Understanding the factors that influence consumer behavior can help brands better understand how to forecast demand for their products on online marketplaces, and even inform product design and marketing strategy.

For example, we may see the back to school shopping season begin much earlier than in previous years due to a combination of pent-up demand and worries about potential supply-chain delays.

Some back to school items may see demand skyrocket as more students return to classrooms, while other items may become less popular as fewer students rely on distance learning.

To stay up to date on consumer behavior and ecommerce news, info, and trend analyses, be sure to subscribe to Pattern Insights on the right.

And, if you’d like to learn more about how you can best leverage our data to help your brand win online, holiday or not, schedule a demo today.

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Sept 27, 2022

Global Ecommerce Weekly News: 27th September 2022

Get up to date with this week's ecommerce headlines from around the globe. --- Amazon News --- Amazon drives renewable energy push with 71 new projects Amazon is planning to add 2.7 gigawatts of clean energy capacity through a couple of new projects as the company attempts to use 100% renewable energy by 2025. The ecommerce business will soon have a total of 329 renewable energy projects, generating 50,000 gigawatt hours of clean energy, which is equivalent to powering 4.6 million US homes every year. [Read more on Reuters](https://www.reuters.com/business/sustainable-business/amazon-drives-renewable-energy-push-with-71-new-projects-2022-09-21/) Amazon launches Prime Early Access Sale Amazon is launching a new 2-day shopping event for its Prime members only, beginning on the 11th of October. Across 15 countries, Prime customers will have access to the shopping event, with thousands of deals on offer globall, ranging from fashion to electronics to essentials. The event has the purpose of giving Prime users the chance to spread the cost of items over the winter months, 6 weeks ahead of Black Friday. [Read more on Charged Retail](https://www.chargedretail.co.uk/2022/09/26/prime-early-access-sale/) --- Other Marketplace News --- Shopify unveils new localisation tool Shopify is launching a new localisation tool, called Translate & Adapt, which works with Shopify Markets to offer localisation for sellers who are looking to expand into new markets. The tool translates a user’s online store into different languages, including product pages and information pages. Merchants are also able to create different shipping terms for each market using the new tool, which allows international expansion and offers a more localised consumer experience, unveiling new potential. [Read more on Ecommerce News](https://ecommercenews.eu/shopify-launches-new-localisation-tool/) Etsy is set to invest hundreds of millions into its marketing platform Etsy CEO claims that the company is on route to spend more than $570 million USD on marketing this year. Even during a time of macroeconomic pressure, inflation and rising interest rates, the company is preparing itself and its sellers for the upcoming holiday season and is focused on retaining interest from buyers. [Read more on Yahoo News](https://uk.news.yahoo.com/etsy-600-million-on-marketing-ceo-154054219.html) --- Other Ecommerce News --- Meta looks to cut costs by 10% in the coming months Meta employees are facing job redundancies as the company plans to cut its costs by 10% over the next few months. Meta reported a 22% YoY increase in costs and expenses, totalling over $20 billion USD. The cuts are expected to come in the form of job redundancies as a result of department reorganisations rather than formal layoffs. [Read more on Charged Retail](https://www.chargedretail.co.uk/2022/09/22/meta-to-slash-costs-by-10-over-coming-months/) DHL teams up with Quadient to offer smart locker deliveries in the UK DHL and tech company, Quadient, have partnered to offer smart lockers parcel pick-up throughout the UK. The new contactless, secure locker stations will give recipients more choice and flexibility to receive their parcels at a time and location best suited to them. The partnership plans to install 500 locker stations across the country by the end of 2022. [Read more on Charged Retail](https://www.chargedretail.co.uk/2022/09/21/dhl-partners-with-quadient-to-offer-smart-locker-delivery/) The online fashion market is set to be worth nearly $170 billion USD in 2025 The European online fashion retail market is set to grow 50% by 2025, with an online turnover of $170 billion USD, which is 33% of the retail branch’s total. Cross-border marketplaces prove to be the largest drivers of this growth, with online websites and apps like Vinted largely pushing the market’s online growth. Zalando recently became the largest cross-border fashion retailer/marketplace, responsible for 11.7% of the online market’s share. [Read more on Ecommerce News](https://ecommercenews.eu/online-fashion-market-worth-e175-billion-in-2025/)
Sept 26, 2022

Top 5 Ways to Prepare for Peak with Google Ads

Peak season is almost upon us and with all signs pointing to it starting earlier than ever, with Christmas gifting searches now ramping up in August and September, it’s time to start preparing for peak. In this article, we’re sharing our top five tips for planning and preparing for peak season with Google Ads and the strategies required to get your Paid Search ready so you can drive success over this crucial period.

1. Go Early

In 2021, gifting search terms started increasing in popularity in August. The general trend is that people are looking, researching and weighing their options early, so it’s best to start your Paid activity early to ensure that you’re capturing that early research traffic. This will help drive revenue alongside aiding those consumers who are in their research phase.

From 2020 to 2021, spend during Cyber Week actually only rose 2% but in the weeks leading up to it, it increased by 16%. However, Cyber Week is still the biggest period during the latter half of the year, accounting for 23% of all online spend by consumers over peak. Being prepared and starting early will help you to maximise your time during this period.

2. Get Ready for Privacy Changes

 According to Google, 48% of global consumers have stopped buying or using a service due to privacy concerns. Privacy is front of mind when consumers are shopping online and we know that Google is phasing out 3rd party cookies in 2023. This is going to make it much harder to track users online and it’s something that brands need to think about this now – waiting isn’t an option.

From a Google Ads point of view, you want to ensure you have set up the Google Ads tag across your site and have enabled ‘Enhanced Conversions’, which ensures all conversions are tracked and allows you to monitor other actions such as ‘Add to Cart.’ This is relatively easy to set up, especially if you use ‘Google Tag Manager’.

It’s also vitally important that you build up your first-party data during this time as this is data you own and it can be used when targeting consumers that have provided your brand with their email address. Pattern’s own experience shows that by segmenting and using first-party data, you can see a 10% improvement in revenue and ROI.

3. Ensure Consumers Can Discover your Brand

A full-funnel approach is now more important than ever as consumers become more discerning and have more choices than ever of where to shop.

Pattern has seen success with Google Ads’ ‘Discovery Campaigns’ (image-based ads that appear on Google platforms such as Gmail and the Google app), which have driven success both from a traffic and revenue perspective.

The performance of these campaigns is significantly enhanced by adopting a segmented and nuanced approach to first-party data and incorporating these into your campaigns. Other options for a full-funnel approach include YouTube and testing bidding on keywords that are more representative of the research phase. (e.g. ‘best baby clothes’ for a baby clothes brand)

4. Get Moving with Performance Max

Earlier this year, Google announced that they were moving away from Smart Shopping and launched Performance Max. This is a new campaign type that incorporates features and placements from Smart Shopping but expands them onto other platforms such as Gmail but also alternative creative options, such as images and videos.

Since Google has already started automatically upgrading Smart Shopping campaigns to Performance Max, expect to see some fluctuations in the first 2 weeks following the switch over but results generally seem positive. We recommend upgrading sooner rather than later to limit any potential impact to peak period.

5. Flight Budgets Accordingly

Peak period will be even more competitive than in 2021 and you’ll need your budgets to support this period, we recommend boosting budgets in October to start capturing that early peak traffic. As we enter November and the Cyber Period, start early and make sure you are capturing those consumers looking for early bargains, ensuring you are being nimble in your optimisations and reacting to the data that you are seeing.

Overall, peak period is vital to help drive your sales and by preparing early, you will see strong results and drive success for your brand. If you want to discuss how your brand can navigate this next peak period, contact us to discuss your options with our performance team now.

Sept 20, 2022

4 Ecommerce Marketplace Consultant Must-Haves

Entering the ecommerce landscape is a huge undertaking for any brand—it usually requires a large investment in resources and expertise to really be successful. Any brand can quickly get in over their heads trying to navigate the nuances of SEO, fulfillment and logistics, distribution control, listing optimization, and meeting the numerous other requirements and administrative tasks to show up well on marketplaces. 

Unfortunately, because it’s so easy for third party, gray market, and unauthorized sellers to obtain and sell products online, many brands find themselves pressured to execute an ecommerce plan without the right resources to succeed on marketplaces and their other channels.

So, for brands looking to enter the ecommerce space or improve their current and future performance, it makes sense to partner with an ecommerce consultant.

Pattern’s global presence and proven success with hundreds of brands has allowed us to develop highly effective ecommerce consulting services. We can guide your brand to navigate issues both large and small in marketplaces worldwide. To maximize your ecommerce efforts, you’ll need to understand what an ecommerce consultant does and how to select one who drives the right value for your brand and products. 

What is an Ecommerce Consultant?

An ecommerce consultant is a specialist in the ecommerce space who can give you personalized guidance on how to market your products and grow their presence on digital marketplaces.

An ecommerce consultant should be able to analyze your brand, audience, category, opportunity, and current roadblocks and help you understand how to utilize your resources (or what resources are missing) to be most effective in capturing your opportunities in the ecommerce space.

Not sure how to evaluate a consultant? Here are 4 key attributes to look for as you make your choice.

1. Brand Obsession/Specialization/Passion

At Pattern, we prioritize brand obsession for a reason—we know that a brand-centered mindset makes a crucial difference in the outcomes and results our partners achieve. So in our experience, when you begin your search for an ecommerce consultant, it’s important to look for a partner who is specialized in ecommerce, invested in the product, and passionate about helping brands build and improve their strategies. Typically, this means finding someone that consults exclusively for ecommerce marketplaces, rather than choosing a consultant who offers many different services. 

2. Proven Results

It’s also important to avoid choosing a consulting partner who can’t deliver the right experience for your brand. The best indication of whether your potential consultant can do that is to review their history, data, and results with other brands. Ask if they’ve helped others in your selling category, if they’ve solved specific issues your brand is facing, and why they feel you are a good fit. The key is to leave the conversation feeling confident that you understand your consultants’ capabilities and whether or not they match up with your needs.

3. Wide Range of Marketplace Expertise

It’s best to pick a consultant who knows how to guide a brand onto and through multiple marketplaces worldwide. You’ll want to take a look at your long-term strategy and think about the regions and platforms you’re currently on and where you might want to take your brand in the future. If your consultant is truly great at what they do, they’ll be able to help you perform well enough with your current product roadmap that it’ll be a no-brainer to expand your presence at the right time.

4. Network of Resources

The most effective partnership with an ecommerce consultant will be able to give you both recommendations and point you to solutions for making those changes in your planning, processes, and execution. Your time and money is valuable, so you want to make sure that you’re spending it as efficiently as possible as you follow your consultant’s advice. So, before you commit to an ecommerce consultant, ask about the resources and concrete solutions they typically recommend to the brands they work with.

Achieve Your Ecommerce Goals With Pattern

Finding an ecommerce consultant that checks the boxes can be a difficult task. At Pattern, our entire focus and drive centers around giving brands the tools and resources they need to succeed on domestic and international ecommerce marketplaces. 

With over 100 global ecommerce consultants across 10 global offices, we have the right tools to partner with brands across the world to achieve better ecommerce success. We give specialized advice, then make sure our partners have all the adequate SEO, social media, CRM, Amazon multi-channel fulfillment services, and ecommerce outsourcing services they need.

Interested in ecommerce consulting services? Set up a call here to learn what Pattern can do for your brand on global marketplaces.