Back-to-School Shopping Looking Like a Win for Retail

Back-to-School Shopping Looking Like a Win for Retail

Written by: Stephanie Bariatti, SMB Media Marketing Consultant 


            Back-to-school shopping for 2021 is shaping up to be a lot different than it was for 2020.  Though we’re not quite “back to normal” yet, many regions of the US will see schools re-opening to in-person learning.  Throw in a third stimulus payment and the newly expanded child tax credit and the stage is set for an increase in back to school revenue, leaving retailers happily optimistic.


            US retail back-to-school sales are projected to climb 9.3% year over year (YoY), compared with last year’s 4.6% contraction YoY, per eMarketer forecasts from Insider Intelligence. For many, last year’s focus was building up the home office/classroom, but this year, most schools are expected to open up—heralding an uptick in back-to-school sales in traditional categories like apparel, as well as maintaining the surge in electronics.


            Below, we discuss a few key trends for marketers and retailers to keep in mind when trying to maximize revenue during the school shopping season.



Big Boxes are the Top Choices


            When buying basic school supplies like pencils and backpacks, families with K-12 students turn first and foremost to big-box stores, according to research done by Tinuiti.  80% of survey respondents say they shop at retailers such as Target and Walmart to complete their back-to-school shopping lists, compared with just under 59% who choose Amazon.  Less than a third (32%) visit office supply stores, and just 1 in 5 (20%) source back-to-school items at grocery and drug stores.


            The appeal of big-box stores can be partly explained by consumers’ return to in-store shopping and a newfound appreciation of hybrid services such as in-store and curbside pickup for items purchased online.  The largest percentage of respondents (35%) plan to do back-to-school shopping exclusively in person, while 30% are opting to stay home and buy online only.  Another 26% plan to shop hybrid-style, both in-person and online.  Just 8% plan to rely exclusively on contactless curbside pickup, which allows customers to order online and pick up at store locations without risking in-store entry.


            In addition, the study found an interesting correlation: shopping styles mirror schooling choices.  In other words, in-school learners tend to shop in-person more, online learners tend to shop online more and hybrid learners are hybrid shoppers.



PPE Remains a Mainstay


            More than three-quarters of survey respondents, 77%, plan to buy masks, gloves, hand sanitizers or extra cleaning supplies for their students.  The percentage is highest, 84%, for families whose K-12 children will engage in a hybrid of online distance learning and in-school instruction.  Parents whose children will attend school full-time in-person are least likely to stock up on PPE, although the vast majority, 71%, will still do so.


            With PPE taking precedence on families’ shopping lists, marketers and merchandisers should work in concert to develop new collections or kits that can meet several needs at once.  For example, in-person learners may need PPE alongside traditional school supplies.



Deals and Promotions a Priority


            A whopping 95% of shoppers search for deals when back-to-school shopping.  70% find coupons or promotions influential and 61% find cash back offers influential.  Not only do parents take advantage of deals, but it’s actually a priority for many, with 39% citing budget efficiency as their number one concern.


            Retailers should be sure to offer enticing incentives around traditional supplies, digital supplies, apparel and PPE, which are the basic categories on most back-to-school lists.  However, special attention should be paid to timing, as it varies among regions based on school starting dates and learning styles.  The bulk will take place in July and August, but marketers should factor in the availability and prevalence of in-person instruction as they craft regional strategies.



            The 2021 back-to-school season will present fresh challenges and opportunities to pandemic-weary families and the marketers who hope to engage them.  However, there is a large group of shoppers who are actually looking forward to the new school year and the positive changes ahead.  As with everything else during this pandemic, retailers and brands must be sure to evolve with the changing conditions and listen to what their consumers want.  Collaborative, creative efforts and a close attention to regional variations will allow consumers to find all they need to be prepared for the upcoming school year.


Stephanie Bariatti works as a Consultant and Project Manager for SMB Media Consulting.  She has had extensive experience with many facets of advertising and media, having worked for and with creative agencies, production companies and research departments.  She lives in New York with her wonderful husband, three lovable little boys and a snuggly Golden Retriever.