Sentiment of the Week: Anticipation in Back-to-School Shopping

By: Dheepan Ramanan

July 30, 2015

Sentiment Analysis
Social Customer Care
Social Engagement
social listening
social media

As August approaches, millions of families across the US begin their back-to-school shopping. For many retailers, this period is second only to holiday shopping in importance, and the average spending shows why. A typical K-12 parent spends nearly $900, while college parents spend even more at around $1,100. This year’s back to school season is even more important than usual after the falling sales in June and an overall sluggish sales environment for many retailers. However, recent surveys indicate a bullish trend for spending this year.

Around 67% of back-to-school shoppers expect to spend more this year than last, this is the highest percentage in 3 years. In this week’s Sentiment of the Week I examine Facebook feedback for six of the top retail companies for back-to-school shopping (Amazon, Target, Staples, Office Depot, Best Buy, and Costco) to find key areas of improvement as we head into the peak of the back-to-school season.


Gauging Facebook activity on these brand pages over the past year, upticks in conversation are loosely associated with peak shopping seasons. This is by far the most prevalent in Amazon’s case, which features a massive spike in conversation around holiday season. Although it’s only July, 25% of Americans have already begun back-to-school shopping. As a result, this season retailers are ramping up promotional activity on social media earlier, hoping to draw in consumers.

Compared to the same period in July, most retailers are showing significant increases in posting volume from customers.

Amazon showed the most dramatic increase in conversation year over year. This July, Amazon received 63% more comments than last year.  This is in large part due to the success of Amazon Prime day, which drew tremendous traffic to the e-commerce site in otherwise soft part of the retail calendar.

Given this influx in conversation, it would not be surprising if retailers posted increased sales this back-to-school season.


Due to the overall larger volumes, all of the top themes this July show an uptick in conversation. Also positively for customers is the across the board improvement in retail sentiment performance. Outside of problem resolution experience, all of the top themes this July record higher customer sentiment.

  • Promotions are a huge draw of customers for back-to-school, 60% of customers mentioned that sales is the number one driver of retailer choice. This year, conversation around promotions has increased 65%.
  • Technology will account for a large proportion of total consumer spending for this upcoming school year and will likely determine if total spending is higher this year versus the previous. At least 38% of parents are likely to purchase new computers or tablets this year and the increases in conversation seem proportional.
  • From early conversation, customers mentioning laptops, computers, and tablets are up 40% this year, a positive sign.

These are overall good signs for the health of this back-to-school season.  However, retailers should pay attention to the changing habits of shoppers. Although 83% of consumers indicated they would likely shop in physical locations, more than ever consumers will use technology to improve their shopping experience.

  • A quarter of customers will check product availability and use digital coupons through their mobile device.
  • Almost half of all customers will utilize their phone to compare prices in-store.

The traditional brick and mortar stores are still playing catch-up in creating stable and frustration free online platforms. The overarching negativity stems from a lack of continuality across all platforms.

  • Mobile apps with out-of-date information and login issues
  • Slow online orders refunds
  • Online order fulfillment that is inconsistent with availability and shipping fees
  • Slow websites prone to errors during times of increased traffic.

These small issues create paper cuts in the customer experience fabric that tarnishes overall brand reputation. For shoppers who expect a uniform standard of excellence on their phone, desktop, or in-store this creates palpable frustration.

 Seamless Order Fulfillment:

To improve the customer experience around order fulfillment through online or in-store pickup, retailers need to create a seamless ordering system and offer faster refunds.  One particularly sore spot is the lack of confirmation of order shipments or updates on product availability. Some customers also complained about undocumented shipping limitations and shipping fees.

  • Order fulfillment comments jumped 99% year over year.
  • Despite improvements in sentiment, the category is still very negative.
  • The overall delivery experience is neutral but the primary cause of negative feedback is around refunds, and inconsistent order updating.
  • Amazon’s customer experience in this area is dominant, scoring .5 points higher in this area.


  • How come it takes so long to issue a refund? I was told one to two billing cycles to show up in my account. Who do I talk to about getting it sooner?
  • I said in the first sentence of my post that I ordered this item online and was given the option of having it shipped to the store. Not only did I NOT get the emails the online order status was  NOT updated
  • The unprofessionalism alone should reimburse me 100% of what I paid for not to mention that I replaced the dishwasher I ordered online with the dishwasher that was available at your store.

 Slow and Error Prone Webpages:

Although e-commerce is no longer in its infancy, some retailers have still not invested enough in creating a stable and easy to use website. Comments around website crashes and technical issues are up 73% year over year. Customers often voice frustration with sluggish performance.


  • Your site is not working once again, when you go Clothing, Dresses, Click on options nothing pulls up
  • Is your website always so glitch and slow?!
  • your tech people can not figure out why your site will not work with paypal.  Seriously?
  • I have tried both Safari and Chrome on two different computers and get the same error

Up to Date Information on Mobile Apps & Improve Stability:

Mobile apps are increasingly important as customers move toward their phone for shopping. Unfortunately, customers have found issues with the consistency of the information across the mobile app, website, and in-store prices. Furthermore, the mobile experience seems to possess more errors and bugs than the desktop website.


  • I gave up on that call, tried your site again which I then noticed had a note about the item unavailable on the mobile site and to try the desktop site – which I did and it said there was one left in stock so I rushed to checkout.
  • The mobile site should be updated so I could have saved myself the trouble of driving today.
  • The website/mobile app will not work on my phone (issues) so I had to call someone to do it from their computer.

Shopping experiences will only become more interlinked between online and offline services. To truly compete in large retail seasons, it’s clear that the future of shopping lies in building mobile applications and e-commerce that provide a holistic customer experience. Undeniably, if companies adapt to this new model, their future is as bright as that of our students.


Dheepan Ramanan is a data scientist at Clarabridge. Follow him on Twitter @DheepanRamanan.