Back-to-School promotions can lead to big bucks if online marketers start early.

Back to school is a big deal for affiliates – it kicks off the part of the season between June and January where many earn the majority of their annual revenue. The overall “back to school” season refers not just to shopping for kids in grades K through 12, but other spending periods including “back to college,” new fall wardrobe, family vacations and sending the kids off to camp. Many affiliates find it second only to the holiday season in terms of sales.

Traditionally, many people consider the back-to-school (BTS) shopping season as a week or two before school starts in August and September. But according to a July 2005 National Retail Federation (NRF) report, 16 percent of consumers start their back-to-school shopping at least two months before school begins and 45 percent begin shopping between three weeks and a month before school starts. With school start times creeping back to mid-August and even earlier in some states (such as Hawaii), it would benefit merchants and affiliates to start their back-to-school efforts as early as May or June.

Chris Henger, vice president of affiliate marketing for Performics, suggests, “Merchants should initiate programs in early June – that is when placements should be secured.”

Irv’s Luggage, which sells backpacks and bags for back to school, starts its season in June. Mary Beth Padian, senior director of Upromise, an affiliate that is partnered with over 430 online retailers, says “most of the merchants we work with start their BTS promotions during the first and second weeks of July.” For example, OfficeMax starts its BTS season in July and Payless Shoes starts their efforts off-line and online in mid-July.

Overall Market

In August 2005, the retail researcher NPD Group predicted overall back-to-school spending would rise 1.4 percent over 2004. They estimated consumers were planning to spend $372 per child this year, up from $367 last year.

The NRF had a higher prediction. The August 2005 Back-to-School Consumer Intentions and Action Survey, conducted by Ohio-based market intelligence firm BIGresearch, found that families with school-aged children would spend an average of $443.77 on back-to-school items. It estimated that for K-12 students, back-to-school spending would see sales of $13.4 billion.

The NRF 2005 Back-to-College Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, also conducted by BIGresearch in August 2005, predicted that college students and their parents were planning to spend 33.8 percent more in 2005 than in 2004 – a whopping $34.4 billion on returning to campus this year.

The $47.8 billion combined predicted spending on back-to-school and back-tocollege merchandise falls behind the Christmas/winter holiday in terms of seasonal sales. Total consumer spending for the 2005 holiday season was $438.6 billion, according to the NRF.

School Supplies

What items are included in back-toschool shopping? In August 2005, NPD Group predicted that the best-selling items would be apparel, school supplies and footwear. According to the chief industry analyst of NPD Group, Marshal Cohen, denim would top the list of mostpurchased apparel item.

For back-to-college merchandise, BIGresearch predicted that spending would rise in all tracked categories; they forecasted that parents and students will spend $11.9 billion on textbooks, $8.2 billion on electronics, $3.0 billion on school supplies, $5.7 billion on clothing and $2.0 billion on shoes.

Shopping Online

So how much of back-to-school shopping occurs online? The 2005 NRF survey found that 32 percent of back-to-school shoppers plan to shop online and that number is expected to grow. One of the main reasons, explains Phil Rist, vice president of strategy for BIGresearch, is that “many store-based retailers are expanding their online offerings ” in many cases, creating broader selection online than they carry in their stores.”

The 2005 “Back to School Shopping Survey” from AOL’s InStore, conducted by Digital Marketing Services, reported higher online spending than the NRF. Parents anticipate spending nearly half of their back-to-school shopping budgets online; 53 percent say online shopping makes back-to-school purchasing easier. The survey also found that most shoppers (58 percent) prefer to research their purchases in advance, as opposed to making impulse buys (42 percent).

Targeting Teens

With the projected growth of back-to-school shopping online, online merchants and affiliates should prepare accordingly. Given teens’ growing number and purchasing power, it makes sense for merchants and affiliates to reach out to them online.

In fact, Web merchants, responding to a June 2005 survey sponsored by the online trade publication Internet Retailer, found that the third most frequently cited growth driver was the growing buying power of today’s Web-savvy teens and young adults.

Jeffrey Grau, senior analyst for eMarketer and author of February 2006’s “Retail E-Commerce: Future Trends” reports that, “Credit goes to a cadre of digitally literate young adults who are replacing older Internet shoppers in the e-commerce marketplace.”

A 2005 report by Pew Internet & American Life Project detailing a survey conducted in 2004 found that 87 percent of American teens age 12 to 17 used the Internet, up from 73 percent in 2000, and found that 43 percent of teens who go online purchase items.

One opportunity to reach teen and young adult consumers is for marketers to take advantage of their inclination for using consumer electronics and entertainment devices and for visiting websites about gaming (see story page 74). According to a 2005 Forrester Research report, over 90 percent of consumers age 12 to 21 in the U.S. and Canada own a gaming device and 75 percent play online and off-line games on their PC – marketers could integrate ads about back to school into the games themselves.

In addition, marketers would be wise to advertise about back-to-school shopping on a variety of websites. Young consumers spend more hours per week on the Net than adults, and Forrester found that almost 80 percent of teens visit game sites, almost 50 percent visit movie sites, and over one-third visit music sites.

Social networking sites are another opportunity for merchants to reach teens and young adults. Debra Aho Williamson, senior analyst for eMarketer, says, “Teens are the consummate word-of-mouth consumers; they discuss their likes and dislikes in blogs, text messages and posts on social networking sites. There are two caveats, however. The atmosphere is freewheeling and merchants may need to cede some control over their brand image. The other caveat is that teens feel no qualms about exposing a company if their motives seem suspect.”

Of course, another core audience for back-to-school promotions is the parents of school-age children. AOL’s InStore’s Back to School Shopping Survey found that parents plan to spend 47 percent of their back-to-school shopping budget online.

Affiliates may want to reach out to men in their 30s and 40s (fathers of school-age children) because AOL’s InStore’s survey found that fathers plan to spend nearly 25 percent more money on back-to-school shopping than mothers – an average of $336 compared to $270. It also found that fathers are more lenient, allowing their children more freedom to shop on their own and influence final purchases. The survey also found that dads expect to do more than two-thirds (68 percent) of their back-to-school shopping online compared to 42 percent of moms.

Be the Teacher’s Pet

Merchants are finding that in addition to parents and teens, teachers make a good target for back-to-school shopping promotions. According to a 2004 study conducted by Quality Education Data, each year, teachers in the U.S. spend more than $1 billion of their own money on classroom supplies. The study found that only 40 percent of the money spent on classroom suppl

ies in this country is provided by school districts; 60 percent of those supplies are purchased by individual teachers for their own classrooms.

John Serpa, president of, says, “’s product mix has found that teachers are the core back-to-school audience. It has been reported that teachers spend an average of $458 per year of their own money to purchase bulletin board and other classroom-type materials, so our promotions are geared toward teachers.” It seems to be working, as has realized a 38 percent increase in sales in August 2005 over August 2004.

Sally Graham, senior manager of ecommerce for OfficeMax, says “teachers and those who are college age are seeing OfficeMax as the place to shop for back to school.”

What Sells

According to Craig Cassata, president of Mr. Rebates, “There is a whole multitude of back-to-school items that are top sellers such as the obvious products like school supplies (pens, paper, etc.) but we’ve seen a marked increase in laptop sales before school as well as a good amount of apparel and clothing sales too.”

Although eMarketer’s Jeffrey Grau does not have the numbers to quantify it (because merchants tend to only break down their Christmas holiday numbers), he believes that the apparel and accessories category makes up the lion’s share of BTS shopping. A February 2006 comScore Networks report found that sales for apparel grew 41 percent in 2005 from 2004. According to a June 2005 survey by Internet Retailer, 23 percent of respondents believed that the apparel and accessories product area would see the greatest growth in online sales in the next five years.

AOL’s InStore’s Back to School Shopping Survey found that the No. 1 backto- school item parents plan to purchase online for their children is apparel, followed by books, with accessories and computer equipment tied for the No. 3 position.

However, it seems consumers still have doubts about buying apparel online. An August 2005 Gallup poll, which surveyed 7,000 adults, found that over threequarters prefer to buy clothes in stores rather than online – only 9 percent said they preferred to shop online for clothes rather than in stores for reasons such as concerns about the fit and shipping costs.

Affiliates who sell apparel might do well selling items that are trendy for fall and/or are “hard to find.” Michelle Madhok’s is an affiliate site for fashion and shopping whose audience skews toward younger women including college students. She says her site has “an advantage over the magazines of being able to jump on the trends – if there is something that is really hot – we will bubble it to the top so people can get it before it is gone.”

Examples of apparel that can be hard to find or are very trendy are specific brands of jeans. Right now, Angelina Jolie is making JBrand jeans very popular but they can be hard to find in Peoria. So people tend to buy denim online, and for this reason, puts out a denim guide in time for fall fashions. “We don’t do as well with stores [merchants] that have an off-line presence. For example, I have heard that people print us out and go to the Gap off-line,” Madhok says.

Another potentially lucrative back-toschool area for affiliates is selling electronics to teens and college students. According to NRF’s Back to College survey, the average freshman, moving away from home for the first time, plans to spend $1,151.68, with a big chunk of that ($540.35) on electronics.

“There are three items no self-respecting 21st-century teen wants to be seen without: a mobile phone, an iPod and a computer. Back-to-school shopping lists will no doubt include these items,” says eMarketer’s Williamson.

In August 2005, the NRF predicted that although 44 percent of consumers plan to purchase electronics for back to school, the average spend was expected to fall to $68.08, compared with $101.03 in 2004. However, in October 2005, market researcher IDC found that strong back-to-school sales helped boost sales of mid-tier vendors, including Apple, Gateway and others. In June 2005, HP introduced a new back-to-school PC and monitor with new features, lower price and one full year of technical support.

Additional evidence that suggests electronic sellers are doing well: Circuit City reported that results from their second quarter of 2005, which includes June, July and August, were up 7.1 percent to $2.42 billion from $2.26 billion in 2004. (Circuit City does not break out off-line and online sales.)

Textbooks are another strong online shopping area, particularly for students heading off to college in the fall. “Parents who once browsed the shelves of a used bookstore will definitely be able to find the same great deals online,” says Williamson.

The National Association of College Stores Foundation sponsored a Student Watch’s study of 16,000 students at 21 campuses. It reported that 23 percent of textbooks college students purchased are through the Internet, up from 16 percent in 2004. The study showed that 61 percent of students who shop online chose that route because they could find books at bargain prices.

Dustin Rideout, manager of online marketing for, says, “The market has rapidly developed in the last few years. August and September plus January have become the peak seasons for book sales ” period. All of that is driven by the increased sales of textbooks on our website.”

Getting on the BTS Bandwagon

Making the most of the narrow promotional window for back to school is crucial. Performics’ Henger explains that the first step in planning back-to-school promotions is to make sure that marketing messages are coherent – he says that merchants need to keep creative and messaging consistent from a branding perspective. “A multichannel marketer like Sears has a back-to-school marketing strategy that permeates all channels. There is a consistent theme in all advertising channels – free-standing inserts (FSIs), television and online advertising.”

Stacy Ferguson of affiliate Upromise says, “Starting in early July we combine a unique and customized mix of on-site, in the form of a BTS page and themed banners; offsite, which includes direct mail to a million members with children under 12; and weekly and monthly BTSthemed emails. These are personalized to reflect our members’ personal preferences and interests.”’s Rideout explains, “We work hand in hand with the marketing department and have developed other offline promotions solely focused to the student demographic. We employ large on-campus direct marketing campaigns, which includes street teams, collateral, contests, etc. We also have a dedicated student area called Textbook Central, which includes lots of other resources and information for the student textbook buyer. The majority of our campaigns focus on promoting this micro area of our website.”

Some savvy merchants set up ad groups specifically for back to school, according to Renee Silverman, marketing director of Irv’s Luggage.

“We set up, with ad copy that has our ‘back to school’ offer in it,” Silverman says. “The keywords that we associate with these ad groups are given special source codes that identify which ad group they are from. When the sale is made, we can easily see from the source code which keyword and ad group the sale came from. We keep track of this closely so that we can determine when to raise or lower bids on certain keywords, based on their performance. It’s a bit tricky because the average order is smaller for ‘back to school,’ so the spend can easily surpass revenue (and lead to a diminished ROI) if we don’t monitor closely.”

Mr. Rebates’ Cassata, one of Irv’s Luggage’s top affiliates, says, “Usually, a merchant like Irv’s would highlight their best sellers for a seasonal marketing opportunity within their affiliate email newsletters. For example, they would give the creative and linking code for a Jansport backpack so that it is easy for an affiliate to place onto their site or into their content management


“We send out a newsletter with tips, trends and promotional opportunities to our affiliate network,” says’s Serpa. “We communicate every month via email and phone with our top affiliates, identifying targeted link and promotion opportunities.”

And if that’s not enough, there are always incentives, according to Henger. “As a way to boost affiliate sales during the back-to-school season, retailers consider exclusive offers for the affiliate channel; for example, making a promotional code only available to affiliates and not using that code in other channels. Obviously affiliates love these types of promotions as it gives them edge in converting sales – it gives shoppers a reason to buy through the affiliate site.”

Henger suggests retailers consider “incenting” top producers through a special bonus or commission, noting that many super-affiliates warrant premium pricing because of the high volume they drive. For example, a retailer might have a 5 percent commission rate (revenue share) for their affiliates but they may pay some top producers an extra 1 percent. Some large affiliates have slotting fees or other premiums available to merchants who want to optimize sales during the back-to-school season.

OfficeMax runs an affiliate program that rewards its top affiliates. Megan O’Donnell of OfficeMax says “with some publishers we may provide additional cash back during this time frame or additional bonus miles or bonus points for the loyalty sites.”

No Excuses

Given the range in products and audiences, there is no excuse why the majority of affiliates don’t tap in to the more-than $40 billion back-to-school market. Over the past year, studies have found that there has been an increase in the amount of money spent on back-toschool shopping and more parents are shopping online for back-to-school items. Affiliates that cater to teens, college students, mothers of nursery school kids, fathers of elementary school kids, and teachers can all get a piece of the action selling items that vary from fall fashions to the latest computers.

Because retailers are launching more products specifically for the audience and time of year, the value of affiliates will increase as online merchants look to their affiliates as one of their core strategies for sales. But affiliates do need to start as early as June to maximize their returns and prepare their promotions accordingly. Communication with affiliate managers is imperative to take advantage of relevant product promotions and to ensure that they are receiving maximum payment, if warranted.

ALEXANDRA WHARTON is an editor at Montgomery Research Inc., Revenue’s parent company. During her four years at MRI, she’s edited publications about CRM, supply chain, human performance and healthcare technology. Previously she worked at Internet consulting firm marchFIRST (formerly USWeb/CKS).