Typically, the arrival of the back-to-school season is a time for retailers to rejoice and shoppers to revel in the comfort of a familiar ritual. This year, of course, that’s all gone out the window. We’re in uncharted territory, and tentative consumer behavior is driving a high degree of anxiety among retailers.
Uncertainty around both the timing and the logistics of returning to school has resulted in a delay for the usually predictable back-to-school shopping season. This purchasing traditionally begins in July. However, savings destination RetailMeNot is just now beginning to see a rise in demand for school-related categories across its platforms.
While we’re seeing shopping activity increase, data from the first 10 days of August reveals that what people are buying this year is different:
- Consumers showed softer demand for back-to-school apparel and shoes as evidenced by year-over-year declines among top teen and children’s clothing retailers like Justice, Aéropostale, The Children’s Place, OshKosh B’Gosh, and Abercrombie & Fitch.
- Consumers focused attention on home office supplies, furniture and necessities as evidenced by year-over-year growth for Staples, Wayfair, Amazon.com, and Target.
- Consumers appeared to be delaying bigger-ticket purchases like electronics from Apple and Best Buy, and dorm decor from Bed Bath & Beyond, until later in the season when they have greater confidence around how the school year will unfold.
With this early data in mind, the question for brands is clear: How can they pivot promotional and messaging strategies to be both competitive and compelling for consumers during this strange and unprecedented back-to-school season?
Let me offer a few ideas. First, many retailers, including Target, Macy’s, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Academy, are avoiding use of the phrase “back to school” in their promotional messaging, opting instead for more-inclusive language like “back to learning,” “however you school” and “at home or at school.” Categories with traditionally high in-store traffic (e.g., clothing, health and beauty) have reduced restrictions on offers, providing a greater percentage of sitewide deals. And retailers have adjusted promotional offerings to meet consumers where they're shopping, with more offers focused online vs. in-store.
With more consumers opting to shop from home rather than visit stores, RetailMeNot has observed a slight shift in demand toward desktop over mobile. Having said that, mobile still represents the majority of the deal-seeking behavior we're seeing.
A possible silver lining for brands? After a slow, choppy start, they should prepare for elongated back-to-school shopping activity that extends well into Q4. The logic being that parents will settle into their schooling situations (whether at home, at school or a mix of both) and begin to understand their own needs with greater clarity and granularity.
Here are four tips to make the most of the back-to-school season:
- Whether selling in bulk or bundles, create packages and lists to make it easy for consumers to purchase everything they need based on their individual situation.
- Plan to continue promoting school-related categories and deals in Q4, with special focus on bigger purchases like furniture and electronics that people may be delaying until their level of certainty increases.
- As people shift their shopping to online and weekdays to avoid crowds, be sure to message safety protocols, make online returns easy. Furthermore, offer incentives for people willing to come into stores to try on and buy merchandise.
- Use this time coming up to prep, test and learn for what promises to be an equally unusual holiday season.
Wishing you and the students and teachers in your life the best during these trying times, and wishing your brand an inevitably strange but — we hope — ultimately triumphant back-to-school shopping season.
Lauren Cooley is senior vice president of retail and brand solutions at RetailMeNot, a leading savings destination that influences purchase decisions through the power of savings.
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