What Brands Need to Know About Post-Vaccine Back-to-School Shopping


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Back-to-school shopping has always been an exciting occasion for parents and students. In fact, it’s the second biggest retail event of the year

However, returning to school this year is unlike in 2020 or the years before. New shopping preferences and consumer trends have emerged since the pandemic began, presenting opportunities for brands to adapt their strategies and even grow their market share.

In this article, we review how this deal-driven shopping occasion has evolved in recent years, and four ways brands can prepare for another high spending shopping season.

Back-to-School Shopping in 2021 is Omnichannel and Year Round

Since 2020, back-to-school shopping has become increasingly omnichannel. Last year, around 55 percent of shopping was done online as parents avoided physical stores. Online-only retailers like Amazon grew in popularity, capturing sales from 44 percent of parents of K-12 students and 58 percent of parents with college-aged children. Retailers like Target, Walmart, and Kohl’s captured the lion's share of sales and introduced omnichannel fulfillment methods, including BOPIS and click-and-collect. This year, 35 percent of consumers plan to shop for back-to-school items in stores, 30 percent will only shop online, and 26 percent will shop online and at brick-and-mortar retail locations. As a result, brands should be preparing for omnichannel shopping and fulfillment needs.

What’s more, with continual shifts in remote, hybrid, and in-person learning, students have constantly been adapting to changing demands. Many brands have found that following the pandemic, items that traditionally experienced higher demand during back-to-school sales now have demand peaks throughout the year. This presents an opportunity for brands to reimagine products that aren’t conventionally school-related as education essentials and expand their market share.

Want to learn about the essential eCommerce metrics for making smarter  decisions about future campaigns? Read the guide now!

Expanding the Back-to-School Shopping Basket

Last year, brands saw back-to-school needs expand beyond traditional school supplies as parents purchased for both in-person and online learning formats. Items necessary for at-home learning environments were the most popular purchases in 2020, such as laptops, desks, printers, electronic tablets, chairs, speakers, snacks, and headphones. Meanwhile, parents of students who continued full-time or hybrid in-school learning purchased items like hand sanitizer, face masks, and cleaning products. MikMak’s Shopping Index also reported demand surges for home care products during back-to-school shopping last year, with Target and Walmart together capturing nearly half of all home care shopping traffic.

This year, while many parents are sending their students back into the classroom, the need to keep their children healthy and protected is still top of mind. As a result, brands should now anticipate a wider variety of products to belong in the back-to-school basket, especially when parents are shopping with a safe and well-stocked school year in mind.

4 Ways to Make Back-to-School Shopping Work for You

Given these shifts in consumer behavior, if back-to-school is an important shopping occasion for your brand, here’s what you should keep in mind:

  1. Make media at all stages of the consumer journey shoppable.
    School supplies that are discounted and available in bulk drive this shopping season. During this time, campaigns targeting both awareness and decision stages are expected to perform well and drive conversion, with consumers willing to shop at all stages of the buying journey. As such, make sure that your media is shoppable no matter where it is flighted and always tie your investments to final sales in your attribution reporting to see what strategies are working.
  2. Pay attention to where there are adjacencies for your product.
    As we have seen last year, if you are a home care brand, there is a high chance your consumers will happily add your product to cart when shopping for school supplies. In fact, MikMak’s Shopping Index found pet foods to be a top category added to carts with home care goods during the back-to-school season.
  3. Focus on messaging consumers have been responsive to.
    You’ve been gathering insights all year on what your consumers respond to. Now is the time to implement them. For example, the recent surge of interest in healthier foods can also inform the type of messaging to utilize when appealing to parents for snacks. The value of nostalgia that informs emotional buying decisions has also been powerful for parents who want to share their childhood memories with their kids.
  4. Pay attention to geography and anticipate regional needs.
    School opening policies are not uniform across the US, and regional demand and sentiments may differ as well. When looking at your engagement and attribution data, take a geolocational approach. Social listening, combined with your consumer data from different geographies will be key in your decisions around the strategy you choose to employ.

What insights can your brand leverage to create an always-on eCommerce strategy for your products? Collecting first-party data around shopping preferences, engagement activities, and shopper behavior at retailer cart will inform brands on how best to tailor a shopping experience for their consumers. To learn more, read our guide on how to understand the metrics supporting these marketing strategies.

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