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.

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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