The Business of 'Back to School'

Tap into the needs and wants of students and nostalgists, alike.

by Dennis L. Prince
- Aug 19, 2009

Though it's unlikely you took a summer vacation from selling and auctioning, the return of the fall season brings opportunity to reinvigorate your sales goals. As parents and students get back into the swing of things, sellers have the chance to become a part of the bustle, starting with offering the sorts of items students will need, as well as some nostalgic fare past students may wish to reclaim.

If you're eager to list where students will be looking, fall's the time to jump into the flurry of buying and selling that will help prepare you for this year's upcoming shopping season.

A quick study in better bargains

Every year, students tally up a laundry list of items they'll need for the coming semesters. Whether seeking out computer equipment, wireless communication devices, backpacks, clothes or even dorm-room decor, more and more students are turning to online outlets for the items they need. With more time spent in the classroom rather than in a workplace, students aggressively seek out the best bargains and sellers, big and small, who cater to limited funds.

Recognizing and respecting today's breed of students as adept online bargain hunters, auction and fixed-price venues begin courting the scholarly crowd's needs as early as July. At eBay, even before the perennial dog days of summer roll around, you'll find a heavy emphasis on back-to-school promotions dominating the site, giving front-page placement to listed goods generally found on students' shopping lists. Amazon is similarly entrenched in serving the academic-bound audience, its marketplace abuzz with back-to-school goods and offerings intended to meet the needs of students and parents of all ages.

Individual sellers like you now have the opportunity to add your student-supportive goods to the pool, taking full advantage of the increased site traffic and drafting off the highly visible promotions during the bustling back-to-school season. And, with the emergence and proliferation of social networking, students are actively cross-chatting to discover or share where the best bargains are. Make sure your name comes up in those word-of-mouth referrals.

Students are on the lookout for reference books and textbooks they'll need for the coming year

The context of texts

Of course, students are on the lookout for good reference books and current textbooks they'll need for the coming year, and which are traditionally priced at exorbitant rates in campus bookstores. Here again is where the online destinations are stepping in to offer students another option. has given its "Textbook Superstore" above-the-fold priority on the site's main page, inviting buyers and sellers to get into the business of transacting in value-priced textbooks. Textbooks should be current, a challenge in itself as many publishers revise to update practically every year.

Still, even recent, albeit not the newest, textbooks are of use to students.

"I used to look for recent-but-not-new books in my major," recalled one student. "That way, when I wrote up my labs, I had references [from a previous edition] the other students didn't have."

Some students have also found that the highlighting and in-margin notes left from a textbook's former owner can add even more value to a purchase. Some students are actually gleeful if their purchase includes full class notes tucked into the front or back cover. To this point, sellers should strive to indicate if there is additional content of this sort—and if you're a student selling your text, consider throwing in the bonus material.

The student as seller

It stands to reason that the educated crowd is smart enough to see a business opportunity at its fingertips. Though students typically aren't interested in becoming bona fide online businesses at the moment (they're busy with their education), they have found the online circuit to be a great place to recoup some of last semester's expenses.

Vintage lunchboxes are heavily traded year-round, but especially so at this time of year

"I sell on occasion," says another student, who proudly tells of an expensive graphing calculator she offered up to recoup some of her original investment. Other students concur, recognizing the value of still-current textbooks and other supplies to the next batch of students. And some have found that selling all other sorts of items, from paperback books to video games to music devices, works to put a bit of spending money in their pockets.

Of course, for the nonstudent sellers who make online commerce their business, it's useful to pay close attention to what these student part-time sellers are offering and at what prices. It amounts to the kind of market research that better defines the demographics, needs and desires of the campus crowd still to be served this year and in the years to come.

Reuniting with the class of 19-something

But if you're not bent toward selling current school-related supplies, there is a niche for collectibles dealers to get in on the back-to-school rush. The in-touch seller recognizes how this time of year stirs up feelings of nostalgia in yesteryear's student body. As we send off our young adults for the college campus or escort our grade-schoolers to the bus stop, parents often wax nostalgic for the trinkets that embody memories of schooldays past.

Naturally, as this currently includes the 30-, 40- and 50-something crowd, the prime bit of nostalgia in demand is the steel lunchbox. With its large collector base, vintage lunchboxes are heavily traded year-round, but especially so at this time of year. If you're tending an inventory that includes these long-treasured totes, be sure to get them within buyers' sight and reach right away.

Beyond lunchboxes, recognize the nostalgic appeal of other such school-related items like pencil boxes, backpacks, character binders and notebooks and even pencil-top erasers. Chances are, if it's something that makes you drift back to your blackboard memories, there are many buyers also eager to take part in the back-to-school ritual, whether they ever set foot on a campus or not.

About the Author

Dennis L. Prince has been analyzing and advocating the e-commerce sector since 1996. He has published more than 12 books on the subject, including How to Sell Anything on eBay…and Make a Fortune, second edition (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and How to Make Money with MySpace (McGraw-Hill, 2008). His insight is actively sought within online, magazine, television and radio venues.

Opinions expressed here may not be shared by Auctiva Corp. and/or its principals.

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