Looking Back at Back to School 2018

Back-to-School is a hugely important period for retailers. From apparel to accessories and stationery, the new school year brings a high level of demand. And while there may be general agreement about the importance, there are more mixed feelings about what 2019’s season will bring.

A study by Deloitte found tempered expectations for the period with a concern that growth would remain flat compared to 2018. On the other hand, the National Retail Federation expects the season to provide a boon.

So which is it? We dove in 2018 data to see how last year really impacted top retailers and to mine for insights that could help forecast 2019’s season.

Looking Back on the Impact

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are few retailers who lean on the Back-to-School period more heavily than Staples. Looking at daily data from January 2017 through July 2019 shows that the company’s two biggest peaks coincide with the the Back-to-School season from late July to early September. 2018 was a big year for Staples, who saw their August visits grow 4.7% over August 2017. 

The difference becomes all the more clear when you take a weekly view which allows us to isolate the peak period. The last three weeks in August 2018 and first week of September all rose at least 90% above the baseline for the period, with the peak coming the week of August 20th which rose 110.1% above the baseline. For context, the same period in 2017 saw weekly visits rise over 80% above the baseline, but no single week matched the impressive 2018 performance.

Back to School for Retail Giants

Even the kings of the offline retail sector – Walmart and Target – saw significant value from the Back-to-School period. While the period pales in comparison to Walmart’s giant spike in the holiday shopping season, August 2018 did produce visits the first three weeks of the month that were 5.1%, 3.8% and 4.9% above the baseline for the period from January 2017 through July 2019.

For Target, the 2018 impact was even more clear, with those same three weeks driving visits 9.5%, 10.6% and 14.5% above the period’s baseline.

This reality made August one of the best performing months of the entire 31 month period for Target with only December 2017, November 2018, and December 2019 providing bigger peaks from the period’s baseline.

What might 2019 hold?

Looking at the last full week of July for Staples shows a decrease of 1.3% in visits to the chain compared to the same week in 2018. But, this minor decrease might actually portend better results than the past. Staples announced in 2018 that it would be closing a significant number of stores in 2018 and 2019, yet traffic has only seen a minor dip. This may speak to a more efficient use of their retail footprint, and better synchronization between their online and offline presence.

So could the Back-to-Season period plateau in 2019? Maybe. But early indications show that there is also the potential for a particularly strong season, even in a climate of store closings for the top players.

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