For parents and students alike, back-to-school shopping is a huge deal, especially in 2021. As schools open after a lengthy virtual learning phase, this back-to-school season has added glitz to it, and there are, as usual, more complexities for brands to deal with. 

US K-12 schools are getting ready to open again in August. A lot of private institutions are already operational and working in full capacity. Public schools, however, had taken a more considered approach and are just opening up. 

E-commerce taking center stage is the biggest shift that the pandemic has catalyzed. Globally, there are more online shoppers than ever before, and this number continues to rise. While traditional back-to-school shoppers have leaned towards big-format retailers like Walmart and Target, this year, online shopping is also firmly in the mix, with Amazon as omnipresent as ever. Other more niche D2C brands are also becoming relevant this year as online shoppers are looking for novelty. 

One of the other unique challenges is dealing with a set of non-homogenous buyers, as the students could be learning in schools, homes, and many of them in a hybrid model. Some new elements have been added in the form of personal safety equipment of various kinds. Overall, 2021 is gearing up to be a truly unique back-to-school campaign year for brands. 

As we enter back-to-school season, let’s examine how brands are running their campaigns and managing product launches this year.


Back To School – By The Numbers

Beginning in late June and lasting till the end of August, back-to-school has always been an important commercial season for many brands. Combined with college-going students, back-to-school sales touched $101 billion in 2020.

The share of e-commerce sales has picked up from $20 billion in 2016 to around $38 billion in 2020. The report also indicates two fascinating aspects. 42% of BTS shoppers are likely to shop early in more significant numbers and are likely to spend more on BTS shopping as well. The average spending per household touched $789 in 2020, and this number is projected to reach $1,059.20 per household in 2021. 

There is also a wide range of preferences when it comes to the mode of purchase. According to a survey by Tinuiti, 35% of respondents plan to shop in physical stores, while 30% plan to buy online, and 26% prefer to do both. 

Of the online shoppers, 68% plan to buy from big-box formats like Target and Walmart, while 65% plan on buying from Amazon. These are certainly interesting numbers. But a lot of this depends on the parent’s preferences. 

The rise in direct-to-customer e-commerce and the prevalence of social shopping has another picture to paint when we consider the student’s perspective. Studies show that 85% of students who are on Snapchat plan to use the platform for BTS shopping. Snapchat launched a checklist for brands targeting BTS shoppers and describes how Snapchat is perfect for hosting these campaigns.

It’s also important to know what’s on the shopping list. This year, much like 2020, we see a more varied shopping list than years prior. While there is still demand for traditional school supplies, clothing and apparel will likely play a major role, as there was a general lull in clothes shopping due to the lockdowns, and there is a pent-up need for new clothing. Digital supplies are one of the key areas that are likely to see increased demand, with more parents looking for tools to aid the virtual/hybrid learning models we see today. 


What Does This Mean For Brands?

The numbers look promising for e-commerce and physical retailers alike. How will some of these trends translate into market trends? Here’s what we think.

Starts Early, Runs Longer

One of the key trends we can see is how the campaigns are likely to start early and be active for longer. The focus of these campaigns may vary, as parents shopping for the basic supplies are likely to be the early shoppers, with students who shop for apparel and sportswear likely to shop later.

The shoppers are also divided across channels. This would mean that brands should also strategize their campaigns accordingly. Hence, these campaigns are also likely to be broader in coverage, with e-commerce platforms, social media, and offline marketing campaigns taking place concurrently. 

Campaigns On E-Commerce Sites Will Gain Momentum

Promoting products, discount sales, coupons – brands will bring out the arsenal of traditional campaign strategies to get their products noticed by the BTS shoppers. Walmart and Target have already launched targeted pages for BTS shoppers to find everything they can find under one roof. Sellers on these platforms will be closely monitoring the sales and featuring their products prominently in these marketplaces.

Omnichannel Is Key

As the range of channels increase, brands are likely to spend more on driving awareness and being more visible. Shoppers are choosy when it comes to products, and students have a good amount of influence on the parents regarding purchase decisions. This means that BTS campaigns should be focused on an omnichannel approach.

Many parents are also relying on social media for suggestions, keeping an eye out for suggestions from their friends and family. Brand campaigns should also cover these various channels to drive purchase decisions amongst shoppers.

Being omnichannel is proving to be a key differentiator for leading e-commerce players, and building this capability does not happen overnight. Brands with an established presence across multiple social media and marketing channels would be ideally suited to reap the benefits of this BTS season. 

Shopping From Social

Social media has become ever more tightly integrated with e-commerce over the past couple of years. The pandemic has played a leading role here, but it has been a trend from before too. As shopping directly from social media channels becomes more popular, it is likely to be a key influencing factor in this year’s campaigns.

Snapchat is one of the platforms that need mention here. Using shoppable posts can give brands a big boost in their e-commerce efforts as many student shoppers are already comfortable with it and prefer it. Snapchat has been pushing e-commerce reforms on its platform continuously and is giving brands a great platform to focus their BTS campaigns on too. 

Social Shopping And Influencers Will Play A Big Role

The other side of the coin shows us how social media networks have become critical in driving awareness and purchase decisions. Many parents and students turn to their friends and their favorite influencers for product recommendations and tips. Brands will be leveraging this to the best possible extent this year.

Influencers will play a big role, especially if they are focused on families and parents. Many lifestyle influencers will also be in play as they have their engaged followers amongst the students who have a big influence on their parents. We are likely to see a lot of influencer campaigns this BTS season for various brands and products.


D2C Brands To Serve The Niches

One of the other trends we have seen in e-commerce is the rise of D2C brands that have their set of loyal customers. These brands focus on a niche set of products that are not like the mass-produced counterparts found in big-box retail stores. These D2C brands can still influence proceedings through their unique products and focused marketing. D2C brands are again likely to use social media and influencers extensively to reach the right audience and drive sales. 


In Closing

The back-to-school season has its familiar buzz around it, but there are also some big changes this year. There is a stark contrast between the channels, preferences, shopping lists, and several other areas this year due to the radically different environment we live in today. 

However, for brands looking at their BTS campaigns, this is shaping up to be a stellar year, with all indicators pointing towards records being rewritten. E-commerce has emerged as a major player, and there will be many more brands selling online than the years before. The success of these brands depends on the engagement they have already built with the shoppers on social channels and the efficiency of the campaigns they run.

Social media is perhaps the most important channel for all brands. Influencer marketing is perhaps the strongest level available to brands to get the maximum out of their BTS campaigns, and we expect the brands to use this quite heavily during the BTS season.

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