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August online sales apparently reflect a reshaped back-to-school season

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Consumers continued to spend online in August at levels considerably higher than a year ago, although the year-over-year difference was not as dramatic as it has been in recent months.

One theory: Back-to-school sales this August look very different from a year ago.

Ecommerce sales across all sectors were 34% higher in August compared to August 2019, according to Signifyd’s latest Ecommerce Pulse data. As has been the case throughout the pandemic, a number of commerce verticals saw spending well above that average and some verticals performed below average. 

Luxury Goods, for instance, saw year-over-year sales increase by 133% in August. The bump is notable because the category saw some particularly tough weeks during the pandemic, given the economic uncertainty unleashed by COVID-19 and the fact that people were simply not going out for long stretches. The increase marks the category’s best month by far since the start of the pandemic.

Sales of Commodities & Collectibles, a category that includes precious metals, were up 138% over August 2019. The vertical tends to be more volatile than most, as consumers view it as a safe haven in uncertain times and because prices for some of the products that make up the category fluctuate in response to outside factors. 

Auto, Parts and Tires continued its strong run, with August sales running double what they were a year ago. For month after month, the vertical has consistently performed at 100% or more of the previous year’s numbers. In fact, since April, it’s only had one month in which sales didn’t double (they were up 96% in July) and they’ve reached as high as 134% of the year-ago month. 

The Fashion, Apparel & Luggage vertical experienced interesting movement for the last full month of summer. With the school year beginning in the U.S., Europe and much of the world, the category reported ecommerce sales up 83% over August 2019. A healthy boost, to be sure. But the figure represented a decline from previous pandemic months, when year-over-year sales were up from 136% to 181%. 

It is possible that uncertainty about what the 2020-2021 school year will look like has changed the nature of the back-to-school shopping season, which aside from the winter holidays is retail’s biggest selling season. 

August’s ecommerce figure across all verticals — up 34% — was the smallest year-over-year increase for any full month during the pandemic. Part of that performance, no doubt, is attributable to extremely healthy spending in August 2019, likely attributable to back-to-school shopping. 

There are indications this year that back-to-school spending will be less concentrated and perhaps delayed compared to years past. The National Retail Foundation found in a July survey that consumers had only completed an estimated 17% of their back-to-school shopping.

Of those who still needed to do most of their shopping, 54% said they were delaying because they didn’t know what their children were going to need. Hard to know, when you’re not sure where they’re going to be learning — in school or at the dining table?

“By any measure, this is an unprecedented year with great uncertainty, including how students will get their education this fall, whether they are in kindergarten or college,” NRF CEO Matthew Shay said in a foundation blog post. 

Meantime, the Washington Post reported that back-to-school buying patterns appear to be different this year and that economic uncertainty is also a factor for consumers. 

 “Normally I’d easily spend $700 on school supplies, clothes and a few pairs of shoes,” Diane Perry, a parent and furloughed Disney World employee, told the Post. “But this year, I don’t know what she’s going to need, or when. And I’m still trying to figure out how to pay rent and buy groceries.”

It’s possible that this year’s back-to-school season will stretch out until the early holiday season shoppers begin making holiday purchases. At any rate it is likely retailers will see those sales eventually, as the course of the school year becomes clearer.

Just another indication of how different retail is in the age of COVID-19.

Mike Cassidy

Mike Cassidy

Mike is the head of storytelling at Signifyd. A former journalist and a retail geek, he covers ecommerce and the way technology is transforming digital commerce. Contact him at [email protected].