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Promotions and Discounts: 2017 Back-to-School Trends

Kids are waving good-bye to summer and starting school, which means back-to-school sales are coming to an end and this year’s back-to-school trends are unraveling. Consumer spending during back-to-school 2017 sales was forecasted to increase and reach $83.6 billion.

This number may now be questionable to retailers as back-to-school shoppers are delaying their purchases. According to the NRF, as of early August, only 13 percent of parents had completed all their back-to-school shopping, and 23 percent had not started at all.

Here at Wiser, we took a deeper look at the promotion and discounting back-to-school trends of last year versus this year leading up to peak back-to-school shopping season. Using proprietary data from our platform, we picked a handful of popular categories for back-to-school (such as backpacks, sneakers, laptops, pencils, and planners), and looked at two of the top merchants that shoppers flock to Walmart and Target. Here are some important back-to-school trends and takeaways our data revealed: 

  • More aggressive discounting this year
  • Fewer products on sale
  • More discounts later in the season
  • Less free shipping promotion mentions

Bigger Discounts

This year there was more aggressive discounting than last year, based on average product discount. While last year’s discounts ranged from 15 percent to 25 percent off on back-to-school items, this year discounts ranged from 20 percent to 35 percent.

Target seems to also follow the same trend for both 2016 and 2017. Our data reveals they lower their back-to-school discounts toward the end of July and increase their discounts again heading into August.

On the other hand, in 2016, Walmart held a consistent 20 percent discount on back-to-school products throughout the season. In 2017, Walmart had a new approach: offering a 25 percent discount on back-to-school products through mid-July and steadily increasing their discounts towards the end of the season, peaking at a 35 percent discount on back-to-school products.

2016 Average Percent Discounted 


2017 Average Percent Discounted


Less Back-to-School Products Discounted

Although Wiser’s data reveals that products this year had bigger discounts, there were slightly less discounted products. Looking at the charts below, in 2016, Walmart discounted a little over 75 percent of their back-to-school products, while Target discounted less than 25 percent of their products. The only exception to this trend was the week of July 11, 2017, where Target discounted over 75 percent of their back-to-school products, potentially in the interest of competing with Amazon on Prime Day 2017.

In comparison, this year Walmart discounted a little under 75 percent of their back-to-school products, and Target only discounted about 15 percent of their back-to-school products.

2016 Percentage of Products Discounted


2017 Percentage of Products Discounted 


Higher Depth of Discounts Later in the Season

Next, we took a closer look at the breakdown of the discount level for those products on sale. Comparing the 2016 to 2017 back-to-school trends of discount levels, this year there was a greater depth of discount going into August than last year.

The graph representing last year shows that throughout the back-to-school season, 15 percent of the discounted back-to-school products consistently held a discount of 50 percent or more. On the other hand, during the first few weeks of 2017 back-to-school shopping, about 25 percent of the discounted back-to-school products held a discount of 50 percent or more. 

Furthermore, this year there were bigger discounts week over week compared to last year. Starting the last week of July, about 30 percent of the discounted back-to-school products were discounted by 50 percent or more. Looking closer at the last week of July and first week of August, the number of products discounted at 80 percent and higher jumped.

2016 Discount Level for Products on Sale 


2017 Discount Level for Products on Sale 


Varying Promotional Mentions 

As mentioned earlier, shoppers are delaying making their back-to-school purchases. Using our promotions platform, we are able to take a closer look at the number of promotional mentions (including the type of promotion) and where those mentions are taking place over time.

Taking a closer look at the back-to-school trends, we break down the types of promotions both retailers offer. Our data shows Walmart primarily focuses on sharing free shipping, followed by dollar amount off promotions. On the other hand, Target focuses primarily on a percentage off, followed by free shipping. The distribution of types of promotional mentions for both retailers has been consistent in both 2016 and 2017.

2016 Promotional Mentions 


2017 Promotional Mentions 


Connecting the Dots 

Utilizing our data to get a deeper look into back-to-school trends of discounts and promotions, we are able to make some inferences. Overall, there was a trend of less back-to-school products on sale, but they had deeper discounts this year than last. The combination of these actions can be one of the underlying reasons consumers are procrastinating on their back-to-school shopping. This can also be a sign that increasingly discount-hungry shoppers are waiting for more deals to make purchases. Additionally, this could be causing the back-to-school shopping season to extend further. 

Contributing writer: Patricia Montenegro

Angelica Valentine

Angelica Valentine is a Marketing Consultant with several years of expertise in the retail sector. Her work has appeared on VentureBeat, Business Insider, SAP, and more. She holds a BA from Barnard College of Columbia University.

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