Prime Days and Mini-Seasons: Looking Differently at Back-to-School Shopping

There’s no longer a back-to-school shopping “season.” Rather, there is a series of mini-seasons with distinct timelines that attract different types of buyers and involve varying types of products.

The data knows everything. And it shows that, back-to-school shopping is marked by multiple, standalone events and a collection of smaller “seasons.”

In today’s highly competitive retail environment, there is advantage in understanding and planning for the new timelines of back-to-school shopping. And there is danger, for both retailers and manufacturers, in viewing back-to-school as a single, albeit long, season.

"There are now waves that define the back-to-school season, keeping pace well beyond the traditional August close to the season," said Marshal Cohen, our chief industry analyst. "These shopping waves come in and go out, with a number of key periods when consumers focus on building out different parts of their back-to-school needs. Retailers that prescribe to the old calendar will be selling themselves, and the back-to-school season, short."

School Days

To understand the nature of the new back-to-school shopping seasons, let’s take a look at shopping activity during the summer of 2016.

The chart below shows a number of the industries we track in which back-to-school purchases are significant. These include accessories, apparel, appliances, footwear, home textiles, housewares, technology (including office supplies), and toys.

NPD Group Chart | Sales | Trends | Global Market Insights

Source: The NPD Group/Checkout TrackingSM and Checkout Tracking E-commerce

The chart shows dramatically different patterns for brick-and-mortar sales versus online sales. Brick-and-mortar sales reached their peak during the first two weeks of August, in keeping with the patterns of the traditional back-to-school season. Online sales, however, peaked the week ending July 16. The reason, predictably, was Amazon Prime Day.

It’s also worth noting that brick-and-mortar also experienced a small bump in sales during the Prime Day week as real-world retailers launched promotions to compete against Prime Day.

Prime Day, which didn’t exist prior to 2015, clearly has altered the sales trend during the summer months, and perhaps the timeline of back-to-school shopping as well. Either way, it’s hardly the only significant day in the run-up to the start of school. Another factor is the power of tax-free shopping days at the local level.

 NPD Group Chart | Sales | Trends | Global Market Insights

Source: The Federation of Tax Administrators 

The chart above shows by date the states that offer tax-free shopping for back-to-school. Most of those days fall in early August, suggesting brick-and-mortar sales will peak early in that month in 2017, just as they did in 2016.

More interesting, however, are the categories exempted from sales taxes on those crucial days. Apparel, computers, and school supplies dominate the list. That suggests brick-and-mortar retailers can expect varying peaks by category by state. For example, tax-free shopping likely will create a mini-surge in kids’ footwear sales in Mississippi on July 28 and 29. But any such surge in Maryland won’t occur until three weeks later.

The Reasons for Seasons

Beyond the peak shopping days generated by Amazon and tax authorities, four mini-seasons have emerged within the broader back-to-school shopping season. They’re driven by the changing nature of parenting, teachers’ changing needs, and the new ways young people react to trends. Let’s look at each of these mini-seasons individually:

Shopping for the little kids

This is the classic back-to-school shopping season. It’s running longer these days than it once did. Parents are waiting until late in the season, or even until slightly after school begins, to take advantage of sales.

Shopping for other people’s kids

Pantry shopping, as it’s called, is a fairly recent phenomenon. As teachers have found themselves short of supplies, they’ve had to get more creative. Often teachers will spend personal funds, particularly on items for children who cannot afford their own supplies.

In addition, it’s become common for teachers to distribute a list of bulk supplies needed for a classroom. Parents who can afford to do so are asked to make such purchases on behalf of all the kids in a class.

Pantry shopping tends to occur late in the summer or after the start of school, shown by our Checkout TrackingSM data. By the end of August last year, about 90 percent of traditional back-to-school shopping trips were completed, while only 66 percent of pantry-stocking trips were completed.

The chart below shows some of the items that tend to appear on the lists distributed by schools. Third graders at P.S. 20 in Clinton Hill are expected to arrive with $87.45 worth of office supplies.

NPD Group Chart | Sales | Trends | Global Market Insights

Source: Crain’s New York Business

Shopping for the college kids

The needs of a child leaving home for college differ dramatically from those of younger kids. From small appliances to dorm-room furnishings, back-to-college shopping involves a wider variety of categories than does traditional back-to-school shopping.

College-focused shopping tends to peak earlier than other back-to-school shopping, shown by our Checkout Tracking and Retail Tracking Service data.

Shopping in reaction to other people’s kids

The last mini-season only begins after school starts. It can be thought of as a response to the shopping other parents have done, or “reaction shopping.” Clothing gets updated once kids see the current looks, brands, and styles in action. It’s been like that for many years. Kids return home from the first day of class with an entirely new list of things they must have, particularly footwear.

To see how these mini-seasons play out, let’s look again at the chart on sales distribution, but let’s extend the calendar beyond the start of school.

NPD Group Chart | Sales | Trends | Global Market Insights

Source: The NPD Group/Checkout TrackingSM and Checkout Tracking E-commerce

In the chart above, it’s clear sales peaked again in the week ending September 10, 2016. That’s the same week as the Labor Day holiday and the first day of school for much of the nation, particularly in the population-dense Northeast. Labor Day sales certainly had an impact here. But those purchases also are partly driven by the later mini-seasons, that is, pantry shopping and reaction shopping.

What They Buy is Determined by When They Buy

The effects of peak days and mini-seasons on back-to-school shopping are broad. On each peak day, and in each mini-season, the leading categories shift. As the start of the 2017-2018 school year approaches, we’ll follow the trends, track sales, and analyze the data.

Here are some of the products and categories that are likely to capture our attention – and consumers’ back-to-school dollars:


Backpack sales were up 81 percent in the 2016 back-to-school season.

Although Pottery Barn Kids is still the top brand in the category, sales fell for the brand in 2016. Brands like Osprey, Victoria’s Secret, and The North Face grew in dollar share.

For both 2015 and 2016, 38 percent of all backpack purchases included another item. Apparel was the most commonly attached category (26 percent of orders with items attached).

Home Textiles

As noted earlier, the back-to-college mini-season peaks early. And in home textiles, that peak is particularly concentrated in brick-and-mortar. Bedding sales at brick-and-mortar peaked the week of July 31, 2016, while online sales were spread out in our e-commerce data.

Athletic Footwear

Our Sports Industry Analyst, Matt Powell, says the impact of the “reaction” mini-season is clear.

“Over the last decade, back-to-school has started later, not peaked as high, and lasted longer,” Powell said. “It’s a combination of kids waiting to see what the other kids are wearing, and Mom waiting for better prices.”

Among Powell’s expectations for athletic footwear in the 2017 back-to-school season are:

  • Strong categories will be classics, casual, and lifestyle running
  • All performance categories will be weak, especially basketball
  • Adidas and Puma will be hot

Where They Buy is Changing

As the back-to-school season has changed, so too has the location of back-to-school shopping. Cost-conscious consumers have shifted a considerable portion of their back-to-school spend to dollar stores and off-price stores. That’s been particularly apparent in these two areas:

Apparel: The off-price channel accounted for 10 percent of total apparel sales during Back-to-School 2016, with 10 percent year-over-year sales growth.

Office Supplies: Dollar stores accounted for 4 percent of total back-to-school office supply sales last year – a whopping 24 percent year-over-year growth in sales. Off-price stores captured just 2 percent of these sales, but that was up 11 percent year over year.

School Daze

As we said at the start of this paper, a single back-to-school shopping “season” no longer exists. What was once a season that was few weeks long and had a clear end point now extends both earlier and later. There are new peaks and mini-seasons. Consumers shop for different students and in different places than they did in the past. And amid all that change, only one thing is certain: There will be more change in 2017.

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