Not Quite Textbook: 2017 Back-to-School Traffic Prediction

by ShopperTrak Editors on 08-03-17

With the bulk — 67.7% — of back-to-school shoppers planning to begin shopping during the 3-4 week period that precedes their school district’s designated start date, and a purported $83.6 billion up for grabs this year, it’s high time for brick-and-mortar retailers to tie up loose ends on back-to-school strategies, check in on 2017 back-to-school traffic predictions, and execute, execute, execute.

In terms of in-store of execution, the two most critical weeks of the entire 10-week BTS period are upon us, and the favored busiest week will begin this Sunday. However, though historical traffic data indicates that NRF week 28, which spans Sunday, August 6 – Saturday, August 12, will likely see the highest traffic numbers, there’s no guarantee. Retailers need to be aware of  everything from school start dates, to weather patterns, to a parent’s whim, which all affect traffic levels.

And this is precisely why NRF week 27, week 28’s biggest rival, is also well positioned to ultimately reign as 2017’s busiest traffic week (outside of the holiday season).

In fact, last year (2016)  marked the first time in five consecutive years that foot traffic peaked during NRF week 27, not 28. While this shift may turn out be an anomaly, it may also be indicative of shoppers’ growing preference for shopping early, which ultimately makes it especially difficult to say that NRF week 28 will definitively be the highest grossing traffic week of the 10-week back-to school period, which spans NRF weeks 23-32.

2017 back-to-school traffic

Regardless of which week takes the crown, any brick-and-mortar retailer who’s looking to capitalize on BTS-spurred increases in 2017 back-to-school traffic, retailers should be laser focused on weeks 27 and 28, as both weeks have, over the past five years, repeatedly ranked as number 1 and 2 for busiest week of the BTS season.

Though reviewing historical traffic data on a store-by store basis will likely reveal which day (or days) should be staffed most aggressively for individual stores, from a staffing standpoint, store managers would be prudent to have all hands on deck throughout the next ten days, though particularly on Saturdays.

When accounting for calendar shifts, 2016 day-to-day traffic data should indicate to most retailers that either the 5th or 12th of August (both Saturdays) are poised to claim the top spot as the busiest traffic day of the BTS season.

Either Saturday (8/5 or 8/12) will likely be an opportunity for record-setting 2017 seasonal conversion rates. As a matter of fact, the remainder of week 27 and 28’s traffic flow in 2016 was relatively similar across all days, yet both Saturdays (i.e., 8/6 and 8/13) saw traffic that was 33 – 37% higher than traffic during the next highest day of their respective weeks.

“Successful retailers are cognizant of 2017 back-to-school traffic patterns – and they leverage data when shaping their operations,” says ShopperTrak’s Director of Advisory Services, Brian Field. “Specifically, astute retailers will base staffing off of the historical ebbs and flows of shoppers during back to school. This ensures STAR (shopper-to-associate ratio) is optimized, so that associates can offer top-notch customer service, while not overspending on labor.”

When staffing strategically, it’s critical to remember to focus on both high and low traffic trends. Naturally, lower traffic days are often a good time for receiving deliveries, restocking the shelves, and giving high-converting associates the day off. For your reference, the least busy day nationally of the NRF week 28 in 2016 was Thursday, 8/11; for week 27, it was Tuesday 8/2.

When setting BTS sales and conversion goals, geography and store type matters. ShopperTrak advises retailers to peer group like stores and take geographical variation into consideration. For example, it’s worth noting that regional traffic last year was down more than 5% YOY in the Midwest during BTS, but only 3.9% in the western US region. The additional breaking down of YOY traffic trends by city, state, or micro region helps to further contextualize and inform boardroom expectations – not to mention, the creation of achievable associate goals.

A high-level view of regional traffic reveals that the northeast and western regions were ahead of national YOY averages, while the midwest and southern regions trailed slightly behind.

2017 back-to-school traffic

All in all, despite understandable YOY traffic decline, spending is projected to be up by more than 10% this BTS season, according to NRF. This means that the best way for brick-and-mortar retailers to capture a significant portion of increased consumer spend is to focus on delivering a spectacular in-store experience during the busiest period of the year, outside of the holidays. Analyzing historical traffic data can be instrumental in ensuring that you’re operationally setting associates up for having maximum opportunity to convert every shopper that enters the store.

Now, sharpen your pencils and get ready for a busy week – and take a look at some of ShopperTrak’s previous BTS traffic analyses here. We’ll be back after NRF week 32 to report on how everything turned out with our 2017 back-to-school traffic predictions.

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