09/07/2016 12:11 EDT | Updated 09/07/2016 12:12 EDT

Small Online Businesses Can Capitalize On The 2nd Wave Of Back-To-School Shopping

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Backs of schoolkids with colorful rucksacks moving in the street

It's no secret that back-to-school (BTS) is one of the biggest seasons of the year for retail. Last year, for example, 239 backpacks and 125 laptops were sold on eBay in Canada every day during the BTS season. This year, Ernst & Young predicts that overall BTS spending in Canada will increase by 4.5 per cent.

But not all shopping is done in advance of the school bell ringing. In the past few years, eBay Canada data has shown evidence of a second wave of BTS activity on our marketplace, with parents and students looking for items they didn't realize were needed until the first days into the new school year and making purchases well into September. Maybe last year's gym shorts don't fit, a first-time calculus student is desperate for an advanced calculator, or that lunch bag really doesn't have another year left in it.

Large retailers have certainly caught on to this second season of back-to-school shopping, but it doesn't mean that small online businesses can't compete for their own piece of the retail pie. Here are some tips for small and independent e-tailers looking to capitalize on the second wave of back-to-school shopping:

Invest in hero items.

It doesn't take a ton of research to know the back-to-school basics that are guaranteed sellers: laptops, backpacks, lunch boxes. And you'd be surprised at how many of these basics are purchased within the first month of class. As a small business, this is a great opportunity to take advantage of economies of scale in purchasing -- you might not be able to purchase mass inventory for every skew you want to carry, but investing in a few hero items gives you some healthy profit margins that will allow you to offer competitive pricing. Make sure you've stocked up or re-stocked on these high-demand items, know what's trendy and understand what price points work best for your customers.

Merchandise deal bundles.

If your profit margins won't allow you to do deep discounts like the big retailers, consider creating value through bundle packages; pairing products that naturally go hand-in-hand such as binders and lined paper, or cell phones and mobile accessories. This will create more enticing offers to consumers while protecting your bottom line.

It's also important to make it as easy as possible for shoppers to find your offerings, so branching out beyond your own website will help you reach incremental customers. Deals programs on major online marketplaces and aggregation sites are great ways to get your deal bundles in front of value-hungry shoppers with intent to buy.

Be mobile-friendly.

It's not enough to have an online presence - you also need to offer a great mobile experience. Consumers are increasingly relying on their mobile devices to find the best deals, search for trendy items and read reviews on products. Globally, 57 per cent of sales on eBay involve a mobile touch point -- a level in line with what we see in Canada. eMarketer predicts that mobile's share of Canadian eCommerce will grow from 25.4 per cent in 2016 to 33.1 per cent by 2020. Many small online businesses don't have the investment dollars or capabilities to create sleek, user-friendly commerce apps, but they don't have to: ensure that your website is responsive (adapts itself for mobile traffic) and consider creating a store on an online marketplace so you can take advantage of their mobile apps and established mobile presence -- yet another way to reach new customers.

Offer a wide price range on big-ticket items.

Getting back-to-school ready is expensive, and parents and students are looking to make their dollars stretch. Big ticket items are where they can save a lot, especially if they are open to older models or different conditions. And online is where they do their comparison shopping. Take laptops for example: of all the laptops purchased on eBay in Canada during last year's BTS season, 13 per cent were new, 17 per cent were refurbished, 69 per cent were used. Consider offering a spectrum of price point options on big items to meet the needs of savvy shoppers: not only could you increase your sales, you also might be able to improve the monetization of your distressed or aged inventory.

Consider free shipping.

Because back-to-school is one of the most competitive retail seasons, value-adds like free shipping can be the extra push you need to get consumers to commit to a purchase. Being a small online business might make this more challenging compared to large retail players, but it can be done -- especially if it's temporary. Look at establishing minimum spend thresholds for free shipping to ensure you're getting a good return on investment, or consider blending shipping costs into overall prices if your total price will still be a compelling offer. Alternatively, offer multiple shipping options -- if your customers need their items fast they can pay, if not, ship the items for free but with a slower, cheaper service. Consider this a short-term investment for long-term gain in new customers.

Though class is now in session, there's still plenty of time to grab some of those back-to-school shopping dollars. And being a small online retailer doesn't mean you can't compete with the big kids; you just need to carve out your own strategy to take advantage of this extended retail moment.

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