back-to-school kids

Retailers Shift Back-to-School Strategies

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Masks are off. Classrooms are open. The back-to-school season is upon us.

With the majority of students across the U.S. returning to in-person schooling for the first time in three years, retailers are going back to their pre-pandemic marketing playbooks. Spending on school clothes and supplies is on track to reach $37 billion this year, according to the National Retail Federation. Families with school children are expected to spend an average of $864, or $15 more than last year.

But with inflation concerns growing among many families, retailers are also adjusting how they market their products and engage shoppers who are already overwhelmed by skyrocketing prices.

While overall spending on back-to-school supplies is on track to match, or even exceed last year, surveys show more parents are focusing on essentials (like pencils and backpacks) over non-essentials (like locker decorations and stickers). A survey by the NRF also shows that more families are planning to dip into savings to pay for back-to-school supplies, so the quality and longevity of products is paramount. 

“In order for retailers to make the most of this BTS season, they will need to focus on items that aid students and families in the return to in-person learning and activities, as well as ensure their inventory levels remain healthy to fulfill needs for key necessities for school attire,” says Hector Pantazapoulos, chief revenue officer and co-founder at SourceKnowledge.

The marketing promotions most likely to win over back-to-school shoppers in 2022 differ from those of the past two years. Pantazapoulos says competitive pricing is an area where retailers can stand out. With inflation at a record high, and many families already concerned about their spending habits, he suggests that retailers offer bundle discounts and free shipping, and promote limited-time back-to-school sales to lure in hesitant shoppers who might be anxious about back-to-school spending.

In addition to changing the types of promotions they run, Pantazapoulos also suggests that retailers change the way they market or promote those deals to best capitalize on the current market. For example, some children are returning to school for the first time since 2020. Their families are experiencing a change in routine, and they’re more likely to be out-and-about at music lessons and sports practices. Bundled discounts, with products geared toward preparing students for extracurricular activities, could be an effective marketing tool, along with promotions aimed at preparing parents for this new schedule, like meal prep kits and gym memberships. 

With more school life taking place outside the home, retailers will also need to adjust their advertising strategies. Some of the advertising and marketing channels that worked best during the pandemic, like connected TV and interactive video, might not have as big of an impact now that people are back outdoors this back-to-school season.

“It is no surprise that as the world hibernated at home with the onset of Covid restrictions and lockdowns, that connected TV and streaming services became a major source of entertainment. Naturally, marketers capitalized and increased CTV ad dollars,” Pantazapoulos says. “While CTV continues to redefine entertainment and marketing, social also continues to emerge and compete for ad dollars.” 

Going forward, Pantazapoulos expects to see streaming services and interactive video continue to disrupt traditional television. He believes retail marketers would be wise to continue exploring newer channels and investing their ad dollars in CTV. 

“Over the last several months, the restrictions have started winding down. With this upcoming in-person back to school season, students and households will need to gear up with necessary school supplies, attire, and books, while navigating the current economic landscape,” Pantazapoulos says. “Retailers have the ability to really capitalize on this change, while also trying to make it a stress-free experience for families.”

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.