Before school begins in August, many parents will be shopping online for their kids’ supplies, and, to be ready for the rush, retailers will need to plan their inventory for this surge.
As the leader in global ecommerce acceleration, we’re constantly analyzing trends in online commerce to help brands understand consumer behavior to drive their own sales. So, to analyze retail back to school trends we asked:
When we look at total demand for all back-to-school items together, we find a clear seasonal pattern. Demand for school supplies tends to spike significantly in August of each year—right before school starts. This spike is followed by another annual bump up in demand in January before students return to school from winter vacations. Interestingly, the typical spike in demand for school supplies was muted in August of 2020 when many students were in virtual classrooms during the pandemic.
When we look at writing utensils, we see that markers and mechanical pencils had the highest demand over the past few years, followed by pencils and erasers.
The demand for notebooks, binders, and book covers follows the same pattern: a spike in demand in August followed by a smaller bump in demand in January. Overall demand is highest for spiral notebooks and composition notebooks, followed by D-ring binders and book covers.
Lunch bags and lunch boxes show a slightly different demand. They have much higher peaks in August and more muted bumps in January. Perhaps this is because lunch bags are more durable goods that may only need to be purchased once per school year, unlike writing utensils and notebooks that are consumable goods and need to be purchased more frequently. It is also notable that the August 2020 demand for kid’s lunch bags and lunch boxes was muted significantly in comparison with the demand for August 2019 and 2021. This was likely due to the fact that many students were attending class virtually from home and had no need to carry lunch elsewhere.
Due to differences in the variability of demand for back-to-school items throughout the year, some will present more supply chain problems for suppliers and retailers. The coefficient of variation (standard deviation divided by the mean) gives us a useful metric for comparing the volatility of demand for different products.
When we compare the annual coefficient of variation across back-to-school categories for the past three years, we see calculators and lunch bags have had the highest annual volatility in demand. This is likely due to the fact they may only need to be purchased once per school year. It may be a cause for concern that the volatility for calculators, lunch bags, and writing utensils increased in 2021. Increased volatility can strain the ability of the supply chain to match supply to demand. If this volatility continues into 2022, we may see higher costs get passed on from suppliers and retailers to back-to-school shoppers.
When we compare demand for Q2 of 2021 with Q2 of 2022, we find the highest YoY increase in demand for writing utensils, calculators, and lunch bags. Each of these had a YoY increase in demand of over 20%. Calculators and lunch bags/lunch boxes experienced enormous spikes in demand of over 150% at the time school started in August of 2021. Demand for book covers grew the least YoY at only 2%.
A comparison of the first half of 2021 with the first half of 2022 shows increases for each category of writing utensils: markers, mechanical pencils, pencils, and erasers.
Demand for notebooks in the first half of 2022 has increased for spiral notebooks, composition notebooks, D-ring binders, and book covers.
When we compare the demand for different brands of notebook, Five-Star notebooks consistently have the highest monthly demand for the past several years. These brands also display the seasonal spikes in August and January each year.
When we compare demand changes for notebook brands over the past year, we find demand for Five-Star notebooks and Oxford notebooks have increased. The Five-Star brand also experienced the largest percent demand increase in Q3 2021 when the school year was starting. Mead notebooks have declined in demand YoY. All three brands experienced the seasonal spikes in demand in the third and first quarters when students return to school.
Demand for back-to-school supplies on Amazon increases significantly in August followed by a smaller peak in demand before going back to school in January. Markers and spiral notebooks experienced the highest demand in the categories of writing utensils and notebooks, respectively. Demand for calculators, lunch bags, and writing utensils had the largest demand growth YOY but increased in volatility in 2021. If this continues into 2022, it may put a strain on supply chains as well as increase prices for shoppers. The subcategories of writing utensils and notebooks also increased in demand when comparing H1 2022 to H1 2021.
Most ecommerce categories see an uptick in interest and sales timed to back-to-school. For instance, not only do students need supplies but they need footwear, apparel, new linens and other soft goods. For brands connected to the back-to-school season, being aware of these demand patterns (timing, items, and brand equity) for student’s supplies is important for suppliers and retailers to plan inventory and promotions.
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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.
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