As this school season comes to a close, it's the perfect time to plan for the next. Back-to-school marketing is going to be anything but ordinary this upcoming season, with continuing uncertainty about classroom formats: in-person, virtual or hybrid. But one thing is certain: Retailers can prepare for a blockbuster shopping year with consumers showing signs of being eager to return to normal end-of-summer preparations.
As social distancing guidelines eased earlier this spring, some retailers saw a 29% surge in navigations back to their physical stores from lockdown lows, according to Waze data. A recent survey by The Harris Poll found 62% of U.S. consumers gearing up to shop in-store at least once per week this spring.
And that might just be the start, given the pent-up demand for experiential shopping. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, back-to-school sales were even up last season, driven largely by electronics and amenities designed to make at-home learning more productive and comfortable.
This year, expectations are high for a pivot to in-person learning. Here are four ways retailers can take advantage of the upcoming back-to-school shopping season kickoff.
1. Consider the climate
Plans for a return to in-person learning vary according to local guidelines, so national brands will need to tailor their messaging to regional projected plans. Ahead of the upcoming fall semester, retailers should organize their stores to showcase items suitable for all learning formats. Displays aligned with virtual schooling could include desks and electronics, for example; displays aligned with in-person could feature more conventional classroom accessories, such as backpacks, binders and laptop cases.
"Retailers have the opportunity to customize their messages to emphasize choice and variety," said Liz Franz, head of industry, CPG and Retail at Waze. "They can experiment to determine what resonates most with consumers based on the local ecosystem."
2. Highlight in-demand categories
Looking ahead to back-to-school for 2021, stores can drive discovery for key categories, including:
- Apparel: As students prepare for their in-person debut, the majority (69%) say they plan to spend the same amount or more on apparel; 21% of consumers plan to purchase apparel in the next 6 months – a slight increase (+1%) over last year.
- Electronics: Last year, many families made sizable investments to set up at-home learning environments. This year, some may be upgrading their spaces in preparation for another year of virtual or hybrid learning. And of course, college-bound kids will always be looking for electronic essentials as they equip their dorm rooms with the latest and greatest tech.
- Footwear: Sales were soft last year since most kids were idling at home in their slippers and socks. With the return of gym classes, youth sports,in-person socializing, and of course, the natural change in sizes of growing children, families could be spending big in this category. Retailers can also reach consumers who plan on staying home, with a selection of comfortable or athletic shoes.
- School supplies: Always a top category, parents might be willing to spend more than ever on highlighters, pencil cases, and lunchboxes… not to mention the hand sanitizers and face masks that may still be required.
3. Organize fulfillment for the experience consumers want
Every year, families across the U.S. look forward to the time-honored tradition of back-to-school shopping. Retailers should prepare their stores to welcome families back by establishing a safe and inviting atmosphere. The majority of shoppers (60%) intend to make apparel purchases either equally in-store or online or mostly in-store, with a minority planning to only purchase apparel online. To provide the safe experience consumers seek, retailers should adhere to local safety guidelines, such as masking, social distancing and ample sanitation.
On the other hand, many are still likely to be taking advantage of click-and-collect, which has increased 78% since COVID-19; 69% of shoppers anticipate they will continue to use it at the same or higher levels, even once the pandemic subsides. This is the time to optimize the omnichannel experience by: creating a clear process with extensive signage; prioritizing turnaround time, notifications and order accuracy; and holding cross-trainings to ensure staff availability as demand fluctuates.
As far as how retailers can message buy online, pick-up in-store offerings, Waze Location Personalities can alert customers that a location offers such an omnichannel experience; 91% of clicks on Location Personalities badges indicating the availability of store features like curbside pick-up were followed by a click on a branded search result.
4. Use messaging to highlight value
Even with the pent-up demand, shoppers are still searching for a deal, with 42% indicating better in-store sales or promotions would encourage them to visit a store location to purchase apparel – the top answer among a set of choices.
Retailers need to bring their A game to the upcoming back-to-school season, by encouraging purposeful shopping trips and spending sprees.
Claim a Share of the Back-to-School Shopping Haul
"Many consumers have limited budgets, and they are watching every dollar," Franz said. "But, that doesn't mean they won't jump at a great promotion."
Waze Ads has proven to drive an 8% increase in visits to store locations, and 77% of retail marketers expect digital out-of-home to increase sales volume.
"In fact, finding a deal can increase customers" satisfaction and allow them to feel like savvy shoppers," Franz added. With unique insight into their customer base, retailers should adapt targeted promotions to balance both demand and profitability.
 Waze Data, US, October vs. March 2020
 "Coronavirus could push back-to-school spending to record level as uncertain families gear up for at-home learning." National Retail Federation, 15 July 2020, Accessed 11 May, 2021
Google Consumer Survey, Apparel 1H 2021
 Google Consumer Survey, Apparel 1H 2021
 Waze Internal Data, 2020
 Google Consumer Survey, Apparel 1H 2021