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Back to school marketing: COVID-19’s impact on your omnichannel strategy

During a regular season, back-to-school spending tends to taper off in September. This year, given the numerous, ongoing school delays, the season is expected to last much longer. For example, some schools in New York aren’t planning on returning to in-person classes until early November, which creates a marathon season for marketers to confront.

The back-to-school season is typically a reliably busy time of year for school supply manufacturers, clothing retailers, and consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands alike. Last year, back-to-school sales reached $26.2 billion, or $696.70 per household. 

More than three-quarters of parents expect back-to-school spending to be the same or larger this year. Back-to-school technology-based spending in 2020 is expected to push sales to a record-breaking $33.9 billion. 

Less money may be spent on new clothing and more on remote learning tools, as many kids learn from home. CPG brands also stand to benefit from some of the $19 million school cafeteria budget shifted to households.

Though this year remains unprecedented and uncertain, brands and retailers still have many opportunities to position themselves as names parents trust during the pandemic and capture market share from competitors. Ultimately, those who are able to best implement an adjusted COVID-19 back-to-school marketing strategy will be the ones to reach the most shoppers.

Shopkick Studies Reveal How COVID-19 Changed Shopping

Shopkick, a leading mobile shopping app, has tracked the shopping habits of more than 25,000 American consumers throughout the pandemic and in the lead up to the back-to-school season to glean new insights:

  • Shoppers still like in-store retail shopping. Even if they have to wear a mask and sanitize their hands at the door, shoppers are still heading to supermarkets and big box retailers to hand-select their back-to-school essentials. Nearly all consumers (95%) plan to shop in-store at big box retailers like Target and Walmart, followed by office supply stores (37%), club stores (25%), drug stores (24%), and grocery stores (20%). 
  • Shopping trips are less frequent for families, but higher in value. People are consolidating their trips into one day or living without certain luxuries to reduce potential virus exposure, with 3 in 4 shoppers venturing out less often. “Once per week” seems to be the most popular shopping frequency cited among those surveyed. However, 39% of consumers report spending more money per trip, while 36% say they spend about the same. The average cost per trip ranges between $51 and $100.
  • Teachers are making more trips. Parents and grandparents (33%) plan to make only two back-to-school shopping trips, while teachers (29%) plan to make five or more trips.
  • Flexible options drive choice on where to shop. While most shoppers prefer in-store, consumers will turn to online shopping for ease of shipping (15%), product availability (7%), price (5%), or to save time (4%). More than half of all online shoppers are utilizing curbside pickup options when available to get their goods immediately.
  • Consumers are less brand-loyal. In the past, shoppers would potentially go to different stores to find their brand of choice if inventory was out. While 61% of consumers consider themselves “moderately loyal,” 69% said they’d purchase a competing brand during the pandemic if their preferences were out of stock. Only 14% would not make the purchase at all, 10% would go to another store, and 3% would try to find what they need online. Most consumers say they’re driven to try new brands based on pricing or promotions (41%) and available inventory (38%). To a lesser degree, shoppers may be influenced by name recognition (13%) or packaging/label content (4%).
  • Deals are now more important than ever. Given the uncertainties of the current economic crisis, Americans want to stretch their shopping dollars by eating leftovers (63%), cooking budget-friendly meals (54%), using shopping reward apps (46%), utilizing mobile coupons (42%), and buying in bulk (32%). With tighter budgets due to the economic downturn, 80% say getting the best price is their top priority. Almost half (40%) of respondents say they’ll spend less than $75 per child, followed by 34% who say they’ll spend between $76-$150.

Key Tips for Back-to-School Marketing in COVID-19 Times

Overall, advertising is predicted to be down 20-30% due to decreased budgets, but that gives brands that have weathered the COVID-19 storm the opportunity to ramp up their efforts and stand out even more, whether it’s for office supplies, electronics, clothing, or quick and affordable lunches.

Creating excitement and freshness around back to school is going to be key in your overall back-to-school retail marketing strategy. Here are a few tips for retailers and brands when shifting their omnichannel strategies to accommodate back-to-school marketing, COVID-19-style:

Aligning Online and Offline Inventory to Keep Products Flowing.

Keeping inventory in-stock will be a key differentiator and an important selling point for brands and retailers. Unity between online and offline inventory management systems will be essential for brands and retailers to know when to restock the shelves or update their online catalogs. Consumers will likely be using their mobile devices to research what’s available before visiting a store to make their trips quicker. In some cases, a shopper may turn to mobile to order a product that is out-of-stock. Available inventory may also dictate where a person shops. Brands and retailers with reliable inventory are sure to be the winners of this back-to-school season.

Offering Deals Remains a Top Selling Point, but Price Isn’t Everything.

Customers are often concerned with who offers the best value, but slashing prices isn’t always necessary in order to beat out the competition. After all, retailers and brands cannot compete on “lowest price” alone. That strategy becomes an unsustainable race to the bottom. Instead, retailers and brands can rely on loyalty programs that offer points instead of immediate cents off. With Shopkick, for instance, mobile app users earn points (“kicks”) for completing various engagement-based activities, such as checking into a store, watching a partner’s video, flipping through curated lookbooks, and making purchases. These kicks can later be redeemed for a wide selection of gift cards of their choosing. While they could choose to shop with any brand or retailer, shoppers generally gravitate towards those aligned with a rewards program so they can maximize the value gained from their purchases.  

Optimizing Online Channels to Fuel Offline Purchases.

Retailers and brands can benefit from optimizing their websites for search engines to capture the attention of consumers who are researching product information before buying. Creating content based on back-to-school shopping, refreshing main landing pages, embedding commonly searched keywords into product descriptions, and running pay-per-click advertising campaigns are all ways to target the influx of back-to-school traffic in the coming months. Retail analytics software can help companies capitalize off of data-driven insights.

Integrating New Platforms to Expand Reach.

Whether it’s partnering with a mobile shopping app or taking advantage of the eCommerce capabilities on social media, new platforms represent a huge opportunity to reach new audiences. Younger demographics tend to flock to these technology-based platforms. For instance, 41% of college students base their purchasing decisions on research conducted via smartphone. Likewise, Gen Z shoppers are looking for immersive experiences and interactive content. 

Brands and retailers can gain a considerable expansion in their respective markets with the help of an affordable, pay-for-performance retail marketing partnership. For instance, a leading school lunch brand partnered with Shopkick to drive unplanned consideration and trial during back-to-school season. Thirty-one percent of purchasers said they had not planned to buy the featured school-lunch product before their visit to the store, but after interacting with the Shopkick campaign, decided to. The campaign delivered a strong 2.6:1 ROI and helped the brand differentiate itself from the competition.

Personalizing Marketing Messaging. 

back to school marketing covid Retail marketing will inevitably shift to increasing the inclusion of mobile app marketing, as it allows for custom-tailored, hyper-local messaging based on geographic location. Every community across America is experiencing a different comfort level in terms of how often they go out, where they go out, or whether they shop online. Given this, communication strategies need to be flexible. 

We can’t simply pretend the pandemic isn’t happening and the 2020-2021 school year is continuing with business-as-usual. The most effective marketing messages will resonate with the struggles students and parents face today. For instance, backpack manufacturer JanSport ran a “Lighten the Load” campaign featuring real teenagers discussing mental health issues like loneliness, isolation, anxiety, and managing expectations during COVID-19. Advertisements featuring hugging, holding hands, or jam-packed classrooms just won’t resonate like they used to, so advertisers will need to switch gears and show they understand the struggles of modern families. 

Adaptability Is Key to a Successful 2020 Back-to-School Marketing Strategy

The coronavirus pandemic rocked the retail landscape. Not every brand or retailer will come out of this unscathed; some have declared bankruptcy, while others are hanging on by a thread.

Yet, with any adversity, there comes opportunity for those who are bold and capable enough to seize it.

By embracing mobile technology, new partnerships, search engine optimization, better inventory management, and an omnichannel approach, businesses can boost their profits, rise in prominence, and inspire loyalty amid the turmoil of the 2020 back-to-school season.

Interested in learning more about how to achieve success with your back-to-school marketing in COVID-19 times? See how Shopkick partners have succeeded with their campaigns and contact us to ramp up your back-to-school campaign with a fresh, new partnership.

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Image courtesy of FamVeld