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It’s Not Over: Demand Remains High for Back-to-School Shopping

Back-to-school shopping doesn’t look the same as it did in 2020, but it also doesn’t look like 2019 or 2018, says Sidecar’s Senior Customer Strategy Manager Brice Dunn, speaking on the Retail Uncharted podcast. While a typical back-to-school shopping season ends in mid-August, this year retailers are still experiencing peak shopping activity, and may see demand continue into September.

“Decisions are being made in real time in regards to whether school is in-person, or remote, or if there’s a hybrid option,” says Brice. “We have to follow how those decisions alter consumer demand. The primary takeaway this year has been to stay on top of search query trends on a weekly and even daily basis.”

After joining Retail Uncharted in July to talk about back-to-school shopping trends, Brice returns to the podcast to share how online retailers have performed so far, what type of marketing strategies are proving most effective, and what retailers can expect in this final half of the shopping season. Speaking with Sidecar’s Senior Director of Growth Mike Perekupka, Brice offers practical advice for retailers looking to capitalize on the final surge of back-to-school shopping.

During the podcast, Mike asks:

  • What has surprised you about back-to-school shopping in 2021?
  • What have successful retailers done to maximize their online marketing campaigns during back to school?
  • What advice would you give retailers as they prepare for the second half of back to school?
  • How should retail marketers think about distributing budget across different marketing channels?
  • What does back to school tell us about what retailers can expect during holiday shopping in 2021?

Top Sound Bites

On the most surprising trends during back-to-school shopping this year:

Brice: Typically after Fourth of July, that’s when we start hitting the ground running for back-to-school marketing. It took a few more weeks this year, and part of it could have been the child tax credit, part of it could have been the decision-making of the school districts. But we’re still in the peak season right now, in mid-August. We’re still seeing pretty consistent, peak demand for backpacks and apparel and binders and other other school supplies that usually start to taper off this time of year.

My advice to retailers really would be to keep the foot on the pedal. We’re not out of this yet, and there’s a lot of demand that is still to be captured.

On the type of products shoppers are searching for right now:

Brice: Right now, I think we’re definitely in that apparel and backpack segment, more so than some of the other school supplies. That’s not to say that that trend won’t reverse itself. As students go back to school, parents and teachers will start realizing what specific school supplies they didn’t get or what else they need. Plus, if schools go back to remote or hybrid learning, parents may realize their kids need different supplies. That’s something retailers need to be aware of as well.

On the marketing strategies successful retailers have implemented this back-to-school season:

Brice: I wish it was as cut and dry and easy to share, but, honestly, it’s come down to flexibility. That goes back to what I was mentioning around search demand and how it’s been changing so drastically. It’s helpful to come into back to school with a plan, but as the trends change, retailers need to adjust their strategies. So this year, the most flexible retailers have been the most successful ones.

Retailers that didn’t necessarily have flexible budgets that they could adjust later in the season, when the demand did pick up, have kind of fallen behind. Flexibility this year has been the most successful attribute of retailers. Being able to move with the demand and not necessarily be so tied down to weekly projections or even monthly projections, just being able to be more fluid with their ad spend and their campaign targeting, that has really allowed for more successful results in terms of the aggregate back-to-school season.

On what back to school can tell retailers about the year-end holiday shopping season:

Brice: I think it’s going to be competitive, first and foremost. It’s going to be high-volume, I think.

Once it became clear the school districts were going to go to in-person learning, the demand ramped up significantly, more than we’ve seen in the past. I think we can expect that again in Q4.

Last year Q4, from an e-commerce perspective, was massive because so many stores were closed in different areas across the country. This year I’d expect almost a similar result, despite the fact that a lot of stores are open. There’s so much budget to go around, and I think a lot of retailers who maybe previously didn’t prioritize e-commerce realize that it works, and it’s efficient and effective, so the budget allocation for 2021 is going to be similar to 2020.

The demand is going to be there from a consumer standpoint. A lot of consumers previously would go into stores and look for their Christmas gifts. They’ve now found that it wasn’t that bad to shop online. I think the online demand is going to continue climbing especially into Q4 this year.

There’s going to be a more omnichannel component this year. Stores are back open, but retailers now know that they can engage with customers online and then fulfill orders through stores. They can get customers through online advertising into store locations more, and then be able to track that entire transaction process.

It’s going to be high-volume, it’s going to be competitive, and it’s going to be omnichannel.


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