Marketing Back To School Retail

5 trends sure to land retailers and brands an A+ in their back-to-school efforts

By Amy Lanzi | Executive vice president and North America practice lead

August 11, 2021 | 6 min read

On the cusp of a back-to-school season unlike any other, brands and retailers can capture more consumer dollars and expand their audiences by homing in on a few key trends – including powerful partnerships, social commerce and fluid omnichannel experiences. Amy Lanzi, executive vice-president and North America practice lead at Publicis Commerce, spells out what you need to know.

Bag with school supplies

Back-to-school is a key time for retailers

This year’s back-to-school season is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Last year was exceptionally challenging as we grappled with the onset of a global pandemic and the majority of schools offering remote or hybrid options. This year, the lead-up to back-to-school had many hoping we could go ‘back to normal’, with Covid-19 vaccines more readily available in the US and restrictions being loosened, but as the Delta variant looms large, we’re again filled with confusion, fear and uncertainty regarding what’s ahead.

Despite this uncertainty, back-to-school shopping is poised to grow this year. After a 4.6% decline in 2020, eMarketer has projected that total back-to-school sales will grow by 9.3% to reach $95.83bn. Back-to-school spending per child is also up 9%, with the highest spending happening across preschool and college students, with increases of 32% and 13%, respectively.

As we see this resurgence of back-to-school spend, we’re also seeing brands and retailers offer innovative ways for people to discover new products and complete their shopping lists. Here are a few trends we’re seeing this year and how marketers can maximize the back-to-school experience:

New ways to buy

Shoppers have mastered the art of omnichannel over the last 18 months. With the world feeling more comfortable with in-store shopping, there is also a need for the continued convenience of online shopping. For example, big-box and specialty retailers are offering customers the option to buy online and pick up in person near their respective colleges. This is a compelling way to fend off the e-commerce pure-plays and also allow for parental involvement for first-time dorm room decorators.

As people are testing the waters and returning to physical locations – while also maintaining steady spending across e-commerce platforms – brands need to ensure they are creating seamless shopping experiences. Most consumers toggle between online and offline during their shopping journeys, so it’s critical to leverage the importance of the physical experience.

New brands to try out

Athleisure is out and fashion in is this fall. From head to toe, consumers are reshaping ‘back to you’ looks while retailers are ramping up back-to-school specials and launching new lines to position themselves as a partner in redefining shoppers’ next looks. For instance, Macy’s recently launched its And Now This line for young millennial and gen Z consumers.

Recent data from Snapchat suggests that among kids returning to school this fall, new clothes and a new sports season generated the most excitement. According to survey results, more than half of users plan to buy new clothes in the coming months, and “shoes, sports apparel and [sports] equipment are at the top of their shopping lists”.

As more consumers are in the discovery phase, marketers using a multichannel approach will be able to easily move consumers from discovery to purchase at a time when they are in spending mode and eager to try new brands.

New duos on the scene

Retailers are looking for new ways to steal attention and traffic from both direct-to-consumer (DTC) and other specialty retail brands during this moment. Retailers are partnering up – including Walmart and Justice and Ulta and Target, respectively – to bring in new consumers and gain their share of the back-to-school wallet.

Powerful collaborations are a strategic imperative for brands and retailers to create relevant connections and bolster their understanding of their core shopper. Plus they create opportunities to expand a brand’s audiences now and moving into the holiday season. Not only are shoppers fluidly moving between online and offline, they are also easily swayed to try something new when powerful partnerships catch their attention.

Social commerce: shopping is a team sport

Shopping directly from social media platforms is becoming increasingly popular, particularly as e-commerce becomes the preferred method of shopping. But it isn’t just shopping directly from the app that makes social media platforms so appealing during back-to-school.

Snapchat, for instance, offers a checklist that brands should review when planning their back-to-school social campaigns, including offering ways for users to share excitement about being back in school and communicate their purchases and recommendations to Snapchat friends and followers.

Shopping via social media is as much about creating engagement and building the brand as it is about driving conversions. Social commerce is critical to creating demand moments for today’s brands.

Capture consumers in ‘back-to-life’ moments

While there is still much uncertainty surrounding the coming academic year, many consumers are hoping to see the promise of ‘back to life’. This promise, coupled with delayed fashion spending in 2020, is creating a dynamic back-to-school season for brands to capitalize on. Leading brands will help consumers get back to life with a surround-sound, ‘omnicommerce’ approach to back-to-school. Brands will need to pull all levers – commerce, community and collaboration – to recruit and retain shoppers.

Amy Lanzi is executive vice-president and North America practice lead at Publicis Commerce.

Marketing Back To School Retail

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