How retailers are adapting their back-to-school planning

The back-to-school shopping season is going to be different for all this year – brands, students, teachers, parents and so on. Everything seems different as we continue to adapt to this ‘new norm’. In fact, from our recent research, we learned that over 67% of consumers across generations feel that things are never going to be the same again. With so many ‘unknowns’ and speculation about what the 2020-2021 school year ‘will look like’ across the different states and regions, how can you as a retailer best plan for the back-to-school shopping season? By focusing on the facts and what’s in your control.

Consumers are actively making purchases across the different channels. From our Epsilon research, we learned that consumers across the generations have now started to resume their usual spending. And 48% of them have increased their internet browsing time since the COVID pandemic and continue to be eager to learn about promotional offers. These are key indicators that consumers are ready to shop, and whether students will be participating in school in a virtual or in-classroom setting, creating the ‘ultimate student experience’ while making it special is top of mind for retailers.

Download our latest research to learn more: Consumer sentiment during COVID-19


Understanding what brands are focusing on and how they are adjusting their back-to-school strategies during this ‘new norm’ is important. Here are some considerations for marketers to apply to their back-to-school strategies:

Each school district, under local authorities, is going back in different ways

Many are going back to the physical school building, others are remaining online, and some are considering a hybrid between both. (While some students who are at a high health risk will decide to stay online no matter what the district may put into place.) Whatever the scenario is for students to go back-to-school, it’s important to communicate and be there for consumers when they are ready to shop. Focusing your marketing efforts on the areas that are going back in August versus September can help. And with our Epsilon Geo Spend data sets, we’re able to provide this detailed insight to marketers to help them effectively plan a results-driven back-to-school campaign.

Don’t dismiss the importance of the ‘first day of school’ outfit even if you’re virtual

School age children crave the latest fashion. It’s their opportunity to ‘reinvent’ their style, be authentic and ‘set their fashion tone’ for the school year. The National Retail Foundation reported that for the 2019 back-to-school shopping season, K-12 families spent close to $400 on apparel, shoes and accessories. While although this year will be different whether in-classroom or on-camera virtually, students still want that ‘first day of school’ outfit, in addition to the fact that children quickly outgrow their clothes from year to year. And we’ve learned from our Epsilon research that apparel sales are on the rise which is a positive indicator for retailers.

The need for supplies, regardless of the ‘type of learning’ remains constant

Staples, the ‘ultimate supplier’ of school supplies and beyond, began their back-to-school promotions on June 20th. Staples is communicating through their marketing efforts that students are going to want or need most school supplies regardless of whether the learning takes place at home or in-school. And, they’re modifying several of their marketing displays both in-store and online to adjust to the new back-to-school shopping experience in which students of all ages enjoy.

Technology is now more important than ever

While there continues to be so many unknowns with the ‘type of classroom’ in which students will return to, one thing remains constant – there will be a need for technology. For example, as college aged students shift from the technology devices they used during their high school tenure (laptop, Chrome book, iPad), to college, they now need to purchase their own computer. And brands realize this is an expensive back-to-school purchase and are incorporating promotions and discounts into their marketing programs to off-set some of these costs. For example, Apple announced they’re giving away a pair of AirPods with the purchase of a laptop. Consider how you can bring more savings to the consumer during the back-to-school shopping season.

Be mindful of how your messaging strategy needs to adapt

While the retail marketplace continues to be inundated with COVID-19 messaging, it’s time for marketers to include back-to-school messaging in their campaigns. And remember, consumers at this time – now more than ever – are receptive to promotional offers. In fact, over 50% of consumers across generations would like emails to include promotional offers. And, consumers are starting to shift their online search requests from ‘summer fun’ to the needed back-to-school items. As a brand, consider how you can best package your back-to-school offers. Your digital messaging strategy is now more important than ever.

As you’re continuing your back-to-school planning, think about how you can adjust your plans to meet the needs of consumers. For example, contactless options are something consumers appreciate. In fact, 52% of parents reported they plan to use curbside pick-up for their back-to-shopping needs this year. Even though the back-to-school shopping season will be different this year, it’s still happening and is right around the corner.

To learn more, download our latest research report: Consumer sentiment during COVID-19.