A Marketer’'s Guide to Ace Back to (Home) School Shopping

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In a pre-pandemic world, Back to School is typically synonymous with families gearing up for more regular routines dictated by school, sports and fall activities. However, Back to School 2020 will be anything but normal. The typical signals that trigger the back-to-school kickoff like Amazon Prime Day and Back to College shopping have also shifted this year, with Prime Day expected to be in October and the continuing pandemic impacting returns to college. While a significant amount of the country is still unclear on what the fall school schedule will look like – at home, onsite or a hybrid of both – families are preparing for less routine and more work/life chaos, managing work schedules and the demands of home schooling. Here are some trends we see taking shape in the retail space and steps marketers can take to address them.

Family-Oriented Shopping Occasions

Shoppers are increasingly unsure about where and how students will be studying this fall. According to Shopkick, 81% of parents are willing to send their children back to school at least part time next fall and are allocating their budgets to account for both virtual and in-class instruction. Parents with children in elementary school through high school say they plan to spend an average $789 per family, 13% more than last year's record of $696. Despite the pandemic, families do understand the value of education and are navigating uncertainty to ensure students are well-prepared for the new normal, whether that be new technology to accommodate remote learning, PPE, germ-fighting sanitizer supplies and other items that were once "nice to haves" now becoming necessities. Importantly, shoppers are also taking a more family-oriented approach, with 84% of shoppers involving the student in purchase decisions. This year, expect children to have more influence over purchases during the back-to-school season. Brands should be engaging with both students and parents when it comes to marketing the latest in back-to-school needs and fashion.

Back to School Lists Reimagined

The back-to-school supply list will also see drastic changes this year due to the uncertainty of physical classroom attendance requirements across the US. Masks and personal hand sanitizer will be must-haves for the fall if classes resume in person, and we'll see a shift to items for personal use vs. the traditional items that can be shared for the entire classroom. Similar to Crayola's plan to offer colorful masks for students, brands will have to reimagine the back to school experience and personalize it with expressive, functional masks to allow students to be comfortable in the new normal.

With online shopping providing a safer shopping format, we will likely see multiple shopping "trips" for families looking to prepare ahead of the fall. This means that brands will be able to engage with shoppers multiple times, and should remain agile to adjust to rapidly-evolving consumer sentiment during the pandemic.

The Omnichannel Imperative is Online First

The ease and popularity of contactless experiences during this time will continue, as 82% of consumers say they'll shop at big box retailers like Walmart or Target or look for more convenient shopping options.

Knowing that digital and e-commerce continues to rise while consumer plans to visit clothing stores decrease, brands need to look for new sources of inspiration – whether it's apparel brands providing virtual school outfits and options when in-class instruction resumes or grocery stores serving up healthy and simple recipes with fresh ingredients to allow for more variety in their family lunch and dinner menus.

Regardless of the forum, online plays an extremely important role and it's imperative for the shopper journey to have a seamless digital experience. Deals and discounts will remain most important for shoppers during this time – particularly for those who have limited funds due to financial struggles from the pandemic. Brands should be less focused on increased consumer spending levels and find a way to understand consumers and their needs to build long-term and lifetime customers.

Whether a return to school will require presentable virtual wear or an arsenal of germ-fighting products for in-person classes, brands who want a passing grade must target multiple audience segments, optimize campaigns frequently and prioritize omnichannel online.

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