Every new school year feels like a fresh start, thus bringing some kind of pleasant thrill. Yet for the second time, the disruptions caused by the ongoing pandemic bring more worry than excitement, as well as a decent level of uncertainty for retailers starting to polish their back-to-school campaigns.

One thing is clear – you have to keep one step ahead, be prepared to act fast, and make your back-to-school marketing go hand in hand with the constantly changing situation.

In this post, you will learn about the impact COVID-19 had on back-to-school (BTS) season, how back-to-school shopping is expected to look in 2021, and go through 9 back-to-school marketing ideas that you can adapt to your e-commerce store, regardless of what you sell.

How much people are expected to spend during the back-to-school season in 2021?

Even though the future is still hard to predict, the upcoming 2021/2022 school year seems more optimistic than 2020/2021.

The majority (62%) is expected to go back to in-person schooling, the latest Deloitte back-to-school survey has found. However, there will still be some virtual (11%) or at least hybrid learning (19%) this Fall.

This will also significantly affect BTS spending, which is predicted to be the highest in recent years.

Projected back-to-school season spend 2021
Source: Deloitte
  • The overall BTS sales are expected to reach $32.5 billion, increasing by 16% from $28.1 billion in 2020.
  • The average spend per child is predicted to grow from $529 in 2020 to $612 in 2021.
  • 40% of households plan to spend more on back-to-school items, compared to 22% last year.

What items will dominate back-to-school shopping carts this year?

Estimated market spend by category chart (back-to-school)
Source: Deloitte

Even as schools reopen, various electronic gadgets and hardware will remain two of the biggest shopping categories, growing by 47% and 28% year-over-year, according to Deloitte’s survey.

In 2020, clothing and accessories sales were down by $2,68 billion which shows that many families decided to skip this category likely based on the learning process moving online. This year, shopping for clothes and accessories is expected to keep a similar pace.

Also, COVID-19 related item sales, such as wet wipes, hand sanitizers, and masks, continue to grow as people keep taking precautions to stay safe. In 2020, respondents spent $2 billion on hygiene products, and this year the number is expected to grow by nearly $1 billion, to $2.98 billion overall.

Even if it looks like your business has nothing to do with back-to-school items, you can still use the occasion as an opportunity to sell more – just be creative (more on that later)!

How has the pandemic changed consumer shopping habits during BTS season?

Knowing what kind of products and deals shoppers are looking for, what are their expectations, spending budgets, and how do they prefer to spend their money can help you build your back-to-school campaign and get the best out of it.

Here are a few trends that were observed since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Focusing on different supply categories

We’ve already mentioned the increased demand for tech products as the need to connect to online classes and perform more/all tasks on the computer suddenly emerged. In addition, the demand for online communication and staying connected with your friends and family highly increased during the lockdowns, which kind of made this category a true necessity.

More shopping online

Online shopping was one of the fastest-growing trends overall because of social distancing, many brick-and-mortar stores closing their doors, and the uncertainty and fear that came with the global health crisis.

This year, 39% of shoppers are planning to shop online for BTS items (2% more than in 2020), and it is expected that online sales contribution to overall back-to-school spend will be around $12.5 billion.

Back-to-school season’s spend by channel
Source: Deloitte

Shoppers are more budget-conscious yet also more demanding

Although the BTS spending is expected to significantly increase this year, people now look for quality, better shopping experience, convenience (home delivery, in-store pick-ups), and additional perks (e. g. free shipping).

With the growing online competition, it’s now easier than ever to jump between different brands, look for better offers, and catch the best deals, which is especially important to keep in mind when planning your back-to-school promotions and future marketing campaign ideas.

Extended BTS shopping season

In 2020, the back-to-school shopping season reached its peak around the middle of August, yet this year, it is predicted that 59% of planned spending will occur by the end of July, as per Deloitte’s survey.

Not to worry though – August and early September are predicted to account for nearly $16 billion more, so you still have time to catch that BTS sales train, if you haven't launched your campaigns yet.

9 back-to-school marketing ideas to get the best out of this season

Despite the challenges the season itself and these unprecedented times bring, online shopping is still going strong and as an e-commerce store owner, you can use many different tactics to get the best out of it.

Here are some back-to-school marketing ideas that you can adjust to your business or just draw inspiration for future campaigns.

1. Add BTS products to your store or position yours as such

The good thing about back-to-school shopping season is that it’s actually much wider than it might seem at first. Thinking primary, middle, and high school? Add kindergarteners, college students, teachers and other educators to the list, followed by after-school activities and much more.

If you’re selling something related to this occasion, think about how you can give your products a new twist. For instance, if you’re selling T-Shirts, maybe you can offer some custom design to mark the start of a new school year? Or create a series of badges to make backpacks more fun?

In another case, you might think that your store has nothing to do with the upcoming school year. It's not entirely true, though – you can still position basically any product to meet the theme. Selling car tires? Give college students a discount for safer trips home. Tents? Those will be great for class reunions in nature after staying at home for so long!

2. Target different shoppers

Continuing with the wide audience… Keep this in mind whatever you do – whether you run Google ads or promote your products on Instagram, you might not reach the buyer that you want if you target everyone. Or you target someone specific on the wrong channel.

Ask yourself – what items are trending between children? What are parents’ expectations? What tools or supplies do teachers need? Is there anything universal, suitable for all (like footwear, for instance)? Will I sell my stationery to college professors if I try to reach them on TikTok?

Talking about TikTok, it seems like a good channel to incorporate in your marketing strategy this year, as the #backtoschool hashtag has already been viewed nearly 5 billion times:

Trending back-to-school hashtags in TikTok
Source: TikTok

Learn as much as you can about the shoppers you’re trying to reach as this should help you to come up with the most relevant offers for each group, thus increase your chances of selling to them.

3. Update your website

Just like you would likely add a holiday touch to your website around Christmas, the back-to-school season deserves the same. If you’re not up for some big design changes (that’s not really necessary), just think about the details and how you can let your visitors instantly know that they’ve encountered a back-to-school sale.

Back-to-school section on Staples website

Here are some ideas you might want to try:

  • Create a back-to-school section on your website so that your visitors will be able to easily navigate through relevant products (see the Staples example above).
  • Add a banner that would greet shoppers and inform them about any ongoing promotions or sales.
  • Add a countdown timer to create urgency and encourage purchases.
  • Install a free shipping bar to increase the number of sales.

4. Doublecheck your mobile shopping experience

As a lot of people shop and even more do their research on mobile these days, it’s a must to ensure that your mobile shopping experience is flawless.

M-commerce has been steadily growing in the past few years, jumping from 34.5% of all retail e-commerce sales in the US in 2017 to 49.2% in 2021, according to Statista. By the end of 2021, these numbers are expected to reach 53.9% which means that more people will be shopping online on their smartphones rather than using laptops.

Devices used for back-to-school shopping
Source: Deloitte

As per Deloitte's data, the number of people using a smartphone for shopping during BTS this year will grow by 12% (to 58% overall), and this is the number you can't ignore. Otherwise, poor user experience on a smaller screen will simply drive your potential customers away.

PRO tip: Another reason to take mobile-responsive design seriously is that Google will ignore your website if it’s not, which will harm your SEO, to say the least. To avoid this, you can use this Google tool to check if your website is mobile-friendly.

5. Empower email and SMS marketing

These are two of the most effective marketing methods that have withstood the test of time. Email is still one of the most popular ways to connect with the people who are interested in your business, and SMS marketing is steadily regaining marketers’ attention as a highly personal and direct form of B2C communication.

The good thing is that you don’t have to choose one or the other – using both in combination can actually bring you better results. These two channels have their own strengths and can complement each other when done right, for instance:

  • You can prepare your subscribers for an upcoming email via SMS – especially, if it's going to be a bigger one, like a product update. This might not only encourage them to read the whole email once it's ready but also build suspense that will actually make them wait for the news.
  • Benefit from cross-channel marketing. There’s a higher chance you will reach your goal if you use the combination of email and SMS marketing for promotional messages. You can send a short and direct back-to-school text announcing your discounts to SMS subscribers and get more into details in your email newsletters.

3 back-to-school SMS templates to get you started:

Template #1

<Customer name>, make sure you have your backpack ready before the school year starts! Go through our back-to-school checklist and use 15% off with a code IMREADY: <store URL>  

Template #2

<Customer name>, sharpen your pencils and… looks this season! Get ready for any challenge the Fall will throw at you with the boots from our latest collection. Shop here: <store URL>

Template #3

<Customer name>, kids not ready for school yet? You can still score an A+ if you shop with us now – and 30% off! Check our latest newsletter for more info or visit: <store URL>

6. Be visible on social media

E-commerce nowadays doesn't happen only on official companies' websites anymore. Social media is an emerging shopping channel and will also play an important part in all this back-to-school season shopping experience.

Social media usage during the back-to-school shopping season
Source: Deloitte

Not that long ago, social media was used mostly to connect with people and keep them engaged. Yet social media platforms, like Instagram or Facebook, have rapidly adjusted to the customer demand to shop online and emerged with features that allow purchasing directly on the channel you're using.

This year, the number of parents who are planning to use social media to assist in BTS shopping is expected to grow more than 1,5 times compared to 2020. Besides, 42% of people using social media admit that they visit retailers’ social profiles not only to shop or check on their products but also to get the idea about the brand itself – its personality and purpose, according to the back-to-school survey.

Keep this in mind when building your social media presence.

7. Offer value with your promotions

Keep in mind that you won’t likely be the only one trying to grab shoppers’ attention with various deals. Yes, it might be difficult to stand out from the competitors. However, we have already established that customers today seek exclusivity and a positive experience so try to focus your thoughts on that when brainstorming back-to-school promotion ideas.

Put simply, think about how you can add extra value to your offers. Whether it’s a discount, product bundles, free shipping, gifts, flash sale, or pre-sale for loyal customers, make sure to also:

  • Come up with exclusive offers that cannot be found elsewhere.
  • Offer better quality than your competitors.
  • Streamline your customer service for the event (and always!).
  • Provide a personalized shopping experience (e. g. show deals based on location).
  • Make sure your potential customers don’t have to do extra work to visit your store (for instance, include a link with a specific destination so that they won't have to search for it themselves).

8. Create shopping guides and checklists

Creating back-to-school shopping lists and guides will not only take some burden off your visitors but can also drive traffic to your store.

Search volume for back to school list (google trends)

As parents will be searching for this information (and as you can see from the graph below, they do it every year), you get the chance to grab their attention with your content and show where they can get the items that they need. And that is, hopefully, on your own website.

Some ideas for back-to-school checklists and guides:

  • Back-to-school supplies list
  • Back-to-school clothing list
  • Healthy snack box/lunchbox ideas
  • Productivity tips
  • After school activities
  • DIY projects
  • Season must-haves

9. Generate buzz through giveaways

Honestly, school supplies are expensive. That’s why good promotions work and that’s why people will appreciate all your back-to-school giveaway ideas. If there’s a chance to cut costs, it can’t be missed.

Before dropping free stuff on your visitors, make sure you set a clear goal for your contest. This will help you with further steps as you’ll know what do you want to achieve (e. g. grow your email subscriber list, boost engagement, or increase sales).

Then, choose the prize. Something that is relatable to the back-to-school season, connects with your brand, and will motivate people to join. Come up with rules and conditions that every participant will have to complete and follow.

Finally, choose the relevant channels (for instance, social media or email) and launch your contest. Tell people what to do, what they can win, and how you will select the winners. Make sure it’s fun!

Launch your back-to-school-marketing campaigns now

July and August are the perfect months to set your back-to-school marketing ideas free and reap the benefits of the season.

This year, BTS sales are expected to resemble pre-COVID times and grow, bringing some great news for e-commerce store owners. If you still haven't everything covered, this list should give you an idea of where to begin. There's no time to wait though – so scan it one more time and get to work!

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