Back-to-School Online Shoppers on the Rise

The school shopping rush may not be creating any online traffic jams, but some crafty multichannel retailers are finding that somewhat effort-free promotions can provide welcome relief from the summer doldrums.

L.L. Bean Inc.'s Kids' site tells visitors that "school is cool," but the back-to-school push actually has been hot for the Freeport, Maine-based retailer.

Andy Sturm, marketing manager for L.L. Kids, said the site has seen more than 100% growth in revenue and visitors compared with last year's back-to-school season after promoting school items only through e-mail and their catalogs.

"It's definitely been way beyond what by any reasonable projection we would have expected based on the patterns we'd seen before," Sturm said, noting the online surges fall in line with rising catalog sales.

While every site may not be witnessing growth surges like those of L.L. Bean, polls have indicated that more parents and children would shop online for the upcoming school year than they did in the past.

A late July telephone survey of 1,002 adults by the nonprofit Myvesta.org and financed by Capital One Financial Corp. showed that 51.6% of back-to-school shoppers expected to browse over the Internet, and about half (25.5%) said they expected to make at least one purchase online.

An American Express poll released late last month showed far more modest numbers but predicted that online back-to-school shoppers would triple over last year. Ninety of 1,000 randomly selected adults (9%) said they'd shop or browse online compared with just 3% a year ago. Among 500 teens, 12% said they'd shop or browse vs. 4% last year.

Those numbers are hardly staggering, particularly in comparison to overall retail shopping figures and even holiday online buying patterns, but "it shows momentum," said American Express spokeswoman Joanne Fisher.

Fisher attributed the low numbers to online shoppers' reluctance to purchase clothes, sneakers and shoes online -- the top back-to-school items -- over the Internet.

But that trend may be starting to shift "a little bit," according to Jupiter Communications Inc. analyst Heather Dougherty. One recent Jupiter survey showed that 38% of 1,928 polled online shoppers said they bought apparel over the Internet in the last 12 months. The chief barriers cited were an inability to try on clothes and an inability to see items well enough.

"Retailers are definitely trying to get around this," Dougherty said, noting that more sites offer enlarged photo and 3-D image options.

Retailers such as Bluelight.com and Gap Inc. have noted promising returns from the parts of their sites devoted to school uniform sales.

"We've gotten great feedback," said Gap spokeswoman Anna Lonergan, noting that the uniform shop went up this month. "Parents are always looking at ways to make back-to-school easier for their kids."

Dave Chambers, director of customer relationship development for Kmart Corp.'s Bluelight.com LLC, warned that, "If you can't see it and touch it, you'd better have a good return policy." He said customers can return items to more than 2,000 Kmart stores.

Chambers said Bluelight planned on back-to-school shopping being a major part of the online retail business cycle since the company piggybacks off Kmart school promotions featured in 72 million Sunday newspaper inserts.

"If you're in retailing and tied with a mass merchandiser like Kmart, it makes sense to follow their merchandising themes because [the site] needs to be in the consumer's mind as an alternative channel for the same things they would expect at the Kmart brick-and-mortar stores," Chambers said.

Some companies are still trying promotions, such as Eddie Bauer Inc.'s computer giveaway. But Gomez Associates analyst Alan Alper said he expects to see fewer promotions, given the pressure on e-commerce sites to show profits.

"Anyone who wants to live to see tomorrow really has to take a fine look at the promotions and payoffs and look more at making promotional offers to customers that can be more profitable to them," Alper said.

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