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The Only Thing Certain About Back-to-School Shopping this Year is That it is Anything but Normal

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Certain elements in the life of marketers are as consistent and dependable as the dawn that rises in the east each day and Christmas shopping seasons that begin in earnest the day after thanksgiving. True, some deviation from one specific day to another does exist depending on the geography and localized consumer behavior, but shopping seasons have developed over generations to be predictable, consistent year-over-year and as certain as anything that can be imagined to be certain.

Back-to-school (BTS) shopping in the past was one such certainty that was long-established and consistent for generations. Arriving just before the beginning of each Fall season and culminating in late September, BTS shopping is the biggest and most profitable selling season of the year for many retailers. For others, it is an important preamble to the Christmas holiday shopping season that follows. Last year, consumers spent more than $26 billion on BTS shopping for everything from clothing and school supplies to technology. The COVID-19 pandemic, which arrived early in the new year and resulted in the abrupt closure of schools across the country, threatens the reopening of a normal school year. Regardless of how you define normal, the only thing certain about BTS shopping in 2020 is that it is anything but normal, and certainly uncertain.

With thousands of school systems across the country still struggling to decide what the new school year will look like, retailers’ advertising campaigns appear to be frozen in place, waiting to hear and see what the new normal will bring. Many sellers are putting a hold on their BTS advertising spend, looking to determine if consumers will be browsing the shelves of the local brick and mortar retail outlets or turning to online buying. As a result, BTS advertising in the month leading up to the traditional start of schools is down 50 percent over 2019.

A reported 77 percent of consumers expect a different BTS shopping experience this year. As many as 30% of parents say they won’t likely be shopping the aisles of local retail stores for students’ needs, whatever those needs turn out to be. More than 40 percent will be shopping online and about a quarter of respondents report they will opt for curbside pick-up services; not surprising with all the unknowns on the horizon. Overall BTS advertising spend is expected to be anemic compared to last year. “In the past, we would have had all of our media assets done, baked, in the can and ready to distribute throughout the back-to-school season,” said Monica Rigali, Senior Director of Marketing at JanSport. “Today, we are working on a much shorter timeline. We don’t want to start putting out BTS messages like, ‘It’ll be great getting back in the classroom!’ right now because that would be tone deaf.”

Given the inconsistency of reopening plans across the country, regional messaging across all channels will be necessary to connect with families in specific locations. “It’s all about being as agile and flexible as possible with your plans and pivoting wherever you can,” said Joy Seusing, VP of Global Communications at Bic. “A key part of that is working closely with customers and watching how they are shopping.”

Despite the challenges, getting back to learning this year may be more expensive for parents who are finding that new learning environments come at a premium. A shift away from clothing and traditional supplies like pens, pencils and paper is giving way to the purchase of the software and devices necessary to make the transition to a virtual learning experience. The National Federation of Retailers (NFR) predicts that overall BTS spending for K-12 students will total $33.9 billion this school year, an indication that all the uncertainty, for marketers and consumers alike, comes with a larger price tag.