August is here, which means that for millions of American households, it is time to start thinking about the rapidly encroaching school year. There are classes to register for, books and supplies to buy, and activities to plan and schedule. It is a busy time, and for marketers one that is rich in opportunity. The back-to-school season is always worth paying attention to, especially bearing in mind the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which means it is time for you to do a little studying of your own and let us walk you through this year’s back-to-school consumer landscape.
Let’s dive right in with a bit of statistics. An extensive survey of over 2,000 families conducted by Tinuiti revealed a number of interesting insights into the mindset and behavior of this year’s crop of back-to-school consumers. First, even with the continued rise of online shopping and its particular prevalence during the heights of the pandemic, big-box retailers still reign supreme this year when it comes to shopping for school essentials such as backpacks, highlighters, notebooks, and pencils, although online retailers are narrowing the game. Of the families surveyed, 35% planned on exclusively shopping physical retail while 30% felt committed to only shopping online, leaving 26% that planned on doing a mix of both.
Even within this, there are deeper cuts that are worth exploring. For one thing, the choice of shopping in-person, online, or in some combination appears to be correlated with whether or not the student is attending school in person, virtually, or in a hybrid format respectively. Also, while Amazon is typically thought of as dominating online retail, of those shoppers who were exclusively shopping online, the online marketplaces of big-box retailers like Walmart and Target were more popular than Amazon by a slim margin, with 68% of families planning on shopping with the former, compared to 65% with the latter.
Bearing this in mind, advertisers looking for good strategic placement in the back-to-school space should consider advertising on online marketplaces operated by big names like Walmart or Amazon, with an eye towards diversifying their spend as well, since consumers are fairly spread out across the space. It is hard to overstate the value of being top-of-mind in the exact moment that a shopper is attempting to make a back-to-school purchase, so these marketplaces are a great start.
As ever, timing also matters a lot when attempting to target the back-to-school consumer. Right now, 46% of families state that their children will be back in person this semester, with 23% planning on completely remote learning, and 20% opting for a hybrid format. Regardless of the planned delivery format, 72% of all families are planning on starting their shopping in July and August – that means the moment is now, and marketers should be aiming to deliver their back-to-school campaigns as soon as they are able.
With all of these shopping plans, what is it, exactly, consumers are planning on shopping for? Well, this year has come with some surprises – for one thing, apparel, usually a heavy-hitter in ‘back to school spending’ has come up at the bottom of the priority list this year. When it comes to being a family’s first or second priority, the order of precedence is 68% for traditional school supplies, 50% for digital supplies, 44% for personal protective equipment (PPE), and 38% for apparel. Clearly, flexibility and an ability to relearn the realities of what the back-to-school landscape is like are going to be key to success this year.
If you aren’t tired of numbers yet, Deloitte also did a back-to-school survey of their own – this one is slightly less broad in its sample, containing responses from only 1,200 families instead of 2,000, but it makes for illuminating reading nonetheless. For one thing, according to the survey both general attitudes as well as spending habits look on track to trend upwards this year. As some semblance of normalcy returns to everyday life, this new confidence is expected to result in a projected 16% year-over-year boost in school spending (an average of $612 per child).
Tech sales have shot up 37% year-over-year to reflect a new emphasis on remote learning, and miscellaneous pandemic-related product categories like home office furniture and hygiene products are set to go up 42% compared to 2020 – evidently the newfound optimism observed in consumers is still being tempered by the safety priorities that have governed throughout the onslaught of COVID. Sales are also set to bias earlier than in previous years, with almost 60% of households planning to conclude their shopping by the end of July.It is also expected that we will see a bigger crop of incoming college students this year compared to last, and back-to-college spending is estimated to reach $71 billion, a $2.3 billion increase from 2020. Again, electronics are a big part of this segment, but the back-to-college shopper is also spending on apartment furnishings and other categories that don’t apply to K-12 students.
All of this resurgence has set the stage for new trends in back-to-school shopping – digital is big, but multichannel is bigger; as the school year draws near, consumers are excited not just about shopping and education, but about all the ancillary activities like sports as well; big box stores are going gangbusters. It is a landscape that is rapidly evolving, but extremely healthy – marketers who stay abreast of the trends are likely to do quite well for themselves off a groundswell of optimism, spending, and new needs within the space. Back-to-school means back to business, and hopefully it stays that way.
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