August 27, 2009, 12:00 AM

Back-to-school shoppers hit the web early, but more to research than buy

At five major retailers selling school supplies, July back-to-school searches rose 36% over last year, web analytics research firm Compete Inc. reports.

Paul Demery

Managing Editor, B2B E-commerce

Consumers shopping for school supplies swarmed to the web in July, but the frenzy of activity likely had more to do with deal-hunting or researching store purchases than with buying online, according to a new study from web analytics research firm Compete Inc.

Compete compared activity in July 2009 and July 2008 at the web sites of five retailers that sell school supplies: Office Depot Inc., OfficeMax Inc., Staples Inc., Target Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. School-related searches such as “back to school” surged this July over last year, up to 1.67 million from 1.23 million, a gain of 36%. From the back-to-school search terms studied, Office Depot’s traffic was down 11.4% for the month over last July, while it was up 332.5% at Staples, 61.8% at Target and 23.9% at Wal-Mart and 13.7% at OfficeMax.

To determine whether those searches were resulting in online purchases or if searchers were just looking for information, Compete then reviewed how many visitors did three key activities: find a store, read the weekly flyer as posted online or make a purchase. Across the five sites, back-to-school shoppers did buy more this July than they did last year. 3.0% made a purchase versus 2.9% last year, a gain of 3.4%.

However, gains in the two other activities were much higher year to year, with 5.0% of visitors using the store locator in July compared to 4.3% last year, an increase of 16.2%; and 13.3% viewing the weekly flyer online compared to 10.1% last year, a gain of 31.7%, Compete`s analysis found.

Some retailers did better than others in engaging customers. For example, Staples.com had the highest increase in traffic for July year over year, but the percentage of back-to-school searchers making a purchase dropped 30%. Meanwhile, Office Depot, whose traffic from school-related terms decreased year over year, posted the biggest increase in online purchases from the searched terms-47%.

“The back to school season appears busier on the web than it was at this time last year,” says Compete analyst Lindsay Steinbach in a blog post. Steinbach notes that this doesn’t necessarily imply a significant increase in online purchases. “Instead, people may be using these sites to find coupons, or to prepare for an in-store shopping trip,” she says.

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