Back-to-school shopping on the Web
August 27, 1999
by Deborah Radcliff
(IDG) -- As Gene Schulis and his wife were shopping for their son's school supplies in the summer of 1991, a little girl staged a hissy fit right in front of them. Her mom couldn't find the purple folder the girl wanted.
The Schulises figured there had to be a better way. "We decided that we could talk to teachers and get a list of what they want for the first day of school, then provide an order blank for parents so they don't have to go shopping," he says.
And so, the Milwaukee-based School-Pak was born. But business really took off after the Schulises started merchandising on the Web. School-Pak (link below) has enjoyed more than fourfold growth in four years, serving more than 250 schools in Wisconsin, Maryland, Oregon and Texas, Schulis says.
To the puzzlement of analysts, many large merchandisers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Kmart Corp. are missing this seasonal opportunity. No back-to-school promotions or school supplies icons grace their Web pages. And word searches on "school supplies" or "back to school" turn up nary a pen nor pad of paper.
"We don't have anything earmarked for back to school," a Kmart spokesman acknowledges. "But we're hoping to catch seasonal sales next year."
No projections are available for online sales of back-to-school supplies, per se. But Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., projects that next year, online consumers will spend $2.84 billion on apparel, $4.65 billion on media (software, books, music and videos) and just less than $1 billion on consumer electronics.
But although general retailers may be missing this market, specialized retailers are beginning to dive in.
Web-savvy kids clothing stores like New York-based Delia's and Dodgeville, Wis.-based Lands' End Inc. are pushing back-to-school clothing on their Web sites. And office-supply stores such as Shaker Heights, Ohio-based OfficeMax Inc. and Staples Inc. in Framingham, Mass., are peddling classroom supplies on their sites.
Delia's is artfully cross-merchandising among its preteen and teen girls catalog, Web site and new retail outlets on the East Coast. The cover of Delia's July back-to-school catalog encourages girls to shop online by offering free mouse pads with Web orders and also references its Web site and other cool Internet hangouts on nearly every page.
"There are some sites doing really good with the kid set,'' especially Delia's site, says Scott Silverman, director of Internet retailing at the National Retail Federation in Washington. "They're good examples of retailers taking advantage of a multichannel strategy and making sure those channels are well integrated."
Fun promotionals are also starting to pop up. OfficeMax is running a Volkswagen Beetle giveaway sweepstakes on its site to lure different demographic segments -- namely parents and high schoolers.
Fun merchandising gimmicks, Web events and promotions are especially appealing to the younger set, says Theo Gering, an independent business developer in Amsterdam.
"Merchants can even chat to get mind share," Gering says. "Just hire a few dozen stooges to hang out at major chat sites under various identities and gush over [their] back-to-school products."
Ryan Vero, vice president of e-commerce at OfficeMax, says his company anticipates a 500 percent increase in Web-based, school-supply shopping this year. But it took work to attract that market share, because back-to-school shoppers -- parents and kids -- don't fit OfficeMax's traditional businessperson demographic, he says.
After studying the needs of parents and kids, OfficeMax's e-commerce team laid out its school-supply Web pages much like it would merchandise in a store. Parents, Vero says, need to find things quickly and need help making buying decisions. So, the site's back-to-school section was designed accordingly.
Secondary marketing channels such as online communities and portals like Yahoo Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., are also drawing parents to online back-to-school campaigns.
Last week, OfficeMax, Delia's, J.C. Penney Co. and other retailers linked their school promotions to Schoolpop Inc.'s online mall (link below), a virtual school fund-raiser in Menlo Park, Calif. Schoolpop offers shoppers, mostly parents of school-age kids, the chance to divert rebates of up to 15 percent to the school of the shopper's choice.
But Mike Weller, vice president of e-commerce at Schoolpop, says the company might be missing an opportunity. He says that, aside from promotional material its retailers might submit, Schoolpop isn't putting extra effort into the August and September back-to-school rush. The reason: Schoolpop spends its entire summer ramping up for a much more lucrative season -- Christmas -- which really gets under way at the end of September, Weller says.
"Back-to-school is really a short-lived market," he says. "We've seen statistics that show flat buying from [March through October]."
Gering begs to differ. "Brands on kids' lips can be a big Web winner," he says.
Radcliff is a freelance writer in Northern California.
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