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 20, 2022

Global Ecommerce Weekly News: 20th September 2022

Get up to date with this week's ecommerce headlines from around the globe. --- Amazon News --- Amazon to raise pay and add extra work benefits for delivery drivers Following the rise in fuel prices and protests by Amazon workers, the ecommerce giant is raising its delivery drivers’ pay and adding more work benefits. Amazon has mentioned that it will be investing $450 million into rate increases along with an education program and a Delivery Service Partners program. [Read more on Charged Retail](https://www.chargedretail.co.uk/2022/09/14/amazon-to-raise-delivery-drivers-pay-and-add-more-work-benefits/) Amazon announces it will give away shipping software to merchants at no cost Amazon has recently announced that it will be giving ecommerce merchants free software to manage shopper orders on and off its platform as it extends its reach. The ecommerce giant will be ending monthly costs for sellers using Veeqo, a shipping software it recently acquired and instead offer to them a new, free shipping software. [Read more on Charged Retail](https://www.chargedretail.co.uk/2022/09/16/amazon-to-give-away-shipping-software-to-merchants/) --- Other Marketplace News --- Walmart unveils new virtual fitting rooms In an effort to drive clothing sales, Walmart has launched virtual fitting rooms while competitors reduce spending amid the cost of living crisis. The virtual try-on tool can be used by Walmart customers to virtually measure the clothing items and see how the products would look on them. Shoppers will now be able to see how over 270,000 clothing items on Walmart’s ecommerce site would look on their bodies. [Read more on Charged Retail](https://www.chargedretail.co.uk/2022/09/15/walmart-launches-virtual-fitting-rooms-to-drive-clothing-sales/?utmsource=Retail+Gazette+Subscribers&utmcampaign=2da7f0f8f8-EMAILCAMPAIGN202209150742&utmmedium=email&utmterm=0d23e2768b6-2da7f0f8f8-61040615) THG slashes sales and profit expectations The Hut Group has slashed its forecasts for 2022 as rising interest rates, inflation and energy costs take a toll on consumers. Previously, THG estimated its sales growth to be between 22-25% but after a recent evaluation, has lowered this prediction to between 10-15%. Initial predictions did not take into account the negative effects of ceasing sales in Russia and Ukraine along with the impact that the cost-of-living has had on consumer spending. [Read more on Charged Retail](https://www.chargedretail.co.uk/2022/09/15/thg-slashes-forecast-as-cost-of-living-crisis-hits-consumers-wallets/) --- Other Ecommerce News --- DHL and Post Office team up to provide click and collect services Through a partnership between delivery company, DHL and Post Office, a new click and collect service is to be tested at Post Offices before rolling out to over 1000 branches across the UK. Online shoppers will now have the option of choosing their local Post Office as a collection point, and DHL will fulfil the delivery aspect, opening up networks for both parties. [Read more on Charged Retail](https://www.chargedretail.co.uk/2022/09/14/post-office-partners-with-dhl-express-to-provide-click-and-collect-services/) US consumer watchdog plans to further regulate the BNPL sector The US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has raised concerns regarding the collection of consumer data and the fast-growing nature of the BNPL sector, which includes companies such as Affirm and Klarna. The CFPB is worried that these companies could be negatively impacting consumers’ financial health and aims to put better regulations in place to ensure consumers are safe and empowered. [Read more on Charged Retail](https://www.chargedretail.co.uk/2022/09/16/us-consumer-watchdog-to-start-regulating-bnpl-sector/) Japanese ecommerce market estimated to grow by 6.9% in 2022 The ecommerce market in Japan, largely dominated by domestic online retailers including Reakuten and Mercari, is set to reach $194.3 billion USD in 2022, after seeing an annual compound growth rate of 5.2% between 2018 and 2021. This makes Japan the fourth leading ecommerce market globally, following China, the US, and the UK. [Read more on Charged Retail](https://www.chargedretail.co.uk/2022/09/13/japan-ecommerce-market-to-grow-by-6-9-in-2022/) Ecommerce brands are spending more on TikTok ads TikTok may soon be surpassing Facebook and Google as the most lucrative advertising channel, with ecommerce brands spending 60% more on TikTok ads in Q2. Facebook is still ahead as the top choice for ecommerce advertisers but only grew by 5.6% from Q1, while Google grew 20.5% in Q2, and Snap declined 10.8% in Q2. [Read more on SearchEngineLand](https://searchengineland.com/ecommerce-brands-spent-60-more-on-tiktok-ads-in-q2-387876)
Sept 20, 2022

4 Ecommerce 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.

Sept 15, 2022

The 3 Tmall Metrics That Every Brand Needs to Know

If you’re interested in expanding your brand internationally, you’re probably familiar with Tmall. Tmall is Asia-Pacific’s (APAC) largest marketplace, and indisputably the biggest ecommerce powerhouse in the world. It represents a huge opportunity for many brands, but entering the space is also a big challenge to take on.

At Pattern, we recommend brands looking to enter international markets should first focus on dialing in their domestic presence. Once you’re satisfied that your brand is well-represented and optimized locally, you’re ready to think about tackling new regions, like APAC, and launching on marketplaces like Tmall. Our top advice for entering Tmall is to understand and strategize around its three most important metrics: service, delivery, and content.

What is Tmall’s Detailed Seller Rating (DSR)?

Service, delivery, and content ratings are the three elements that make up Tmall’s Detailed Seller Rating (DSR) score. Each component is scored on a scale of 1-5 that is displayed publicly on your brand’s Tmall flagship store page. This is meant to help consumers decide whether or not to purchase your products.

Why DSR Determines Success on Tmall

DSR scores are important because they’re highly influential in driving conversions—customers see DSRs as a way to quickly understand if a brand is trustworthy and worth buying from. They also matter quite a bit to Tmall itself—they monitor these scores and will take action to close flagship stores with low scores.

Let’s go over each element of the DSR score and some steps you’ll need to take to achieve high ratings.

DSR Score Elements

1. Service

Service is a huge ecommerce component in APAC marketplaces. In most other regions, product listings are static, and consumers use content and reviews to make a decision about what to purchase. On Tmall, consumers want to interact with your brand and test its validity before buying—each transaction takes at least one human interaction to convert.

So, to get a great service rating, you’ll need to have a large, established customer service team dedicated to Tmall sales that can offer real, human touchpoints and very fast response times. To get an idea of the speed your agents should be capable of producing, in our Tmall benchmarking exercise, 92.5% of brands’ customer service agents replied to queries via live chat within 30 seconds, 5% replied within one minute and the remaining 2.5% of brands took longer than a minute. So, look for a Trade Partner (TP) that has enough resources to compete with those numbers, support your sales, and maintain a good DSR score.

2. Delivery

Another thing you’ll really want to focus on is a high-quality delivery experience for consumers. As in other regions around the world, Tmall consumers have high expectations for their delivery experience. In our Chinese consumer polling report that targeted consumers buying from Tmall Global, we found that 6% expected same-day delivery, 15% expected next-day delivery, and 46% expected 2-5 day delivery.They want to receive their products fast and they want the products to be undamaged and pristine upon arrival.

So, to achieve a high score for your delivery capabilities, we highly recommend partnering with a TP or ecommerce accelerator like Pattern (which serves as a TP) who has the ability to facilitate your distribution. Make sure your TP has the right infrastructure in place to support high-quality logistics experiences for all of your consumers—they should have an established, well-oiled delivery process in place and the capability to fluidly add you to their current fulfillment system.

3. Content

As in every digital marketplace, content is a huge component of the decision-making process for consumers on Tmall—they can’t touch your product with their hands or see it in person before buying, so it’s important they’re empowered to make a good decision on whether or not to purchase based on the videos, images, and copy.

The goal is to make all of the content and relevant information on your flagship site easily-accessible—consumers should be able to visit your page and make a decision about whether or not to buy without navigating to a new site/page and taking their conversions with them. Images with text and extensive product details are a great way to do this, as well as making sure your service team can speak to all aspects of your product with any consumers (via text or chat).

Expand Internationally With Pattern

As the world’s foremost brand partner for ecommerce acceleration, Pattern truly understands the significance of international expansion. With regional offices around the world, Pattern knows how to successfully launch and grow brands on Tmall and other marketplaces, with the data, insights, and marketplace intelligence to build the metrics that matter. 

It’s important to have a fantastic brand presence, a knowledgeable guide, and a clear go-forward strategy for your best chance at success. With our in-country resources, expert teams, and extensive experience in growing brands around the globe, Pattern can help you get there.

Set up a call to get your international expansion strategy in motion.