To Win the Back-To-School Season, Retailers Need to Be Ready to Respond to Any Number of Scenarios

With back-to-school second only to the holiday season in sales volume, this time of year is critical in the calendars of retailers across multiple categories. According to the National Retail Federation, in 2019, households expected to spend an average of $696 on back-to-school shopping—$976 in homes with post-secondary students.

It is a massive annual $75-million market, which retailers of school supplies, apparel and electronics rely on to drive a disproportionate amount of their revenue for the year. And this year in particular, given the fallout from COVID-19, retailers are no doubt hoping for a back-to-school sales lift.

But getting consumers to shop back-to-school this year will be a challenge: In addition to near-record-low levels for consumer confidence and willingness to spend, many provinces are just now releasing their back-to-school plans. So far, most are implementing some combination of online and in-class instruction, though it varies from one province to the next, and could differ significantly among individual school boards. In addition, the various safety and distancing measures vary: Some provinces are mandating masks; others are not. Some grades require masks; others do not. Some provinces are putting in place special measures like staggered scheduling; remote learning for schools with limited space; and “bubbles”—groups of small students who won’t require distancing.

Some provinces have announced firm plans; others continue to hold back. All announcements are contingent on covid progress made in the remaining weeks of summer.

All of which requires retailers to maximize the agility of their marketing and in-store merchandising campaigns. The highly local nature of the planning and last-minute decision-making means stores will need to act fast:

  • Where school boards select online learning, retailers must quickly pivot to highlight electronics and other learn-from-home essentials.
  • Where the decision is to return to class, the focus must be on more traditional back-to-school communications and experiences. 
  • The variance from board to board means that retailers will want to highlight “learn from home” in some regions and “back to school” in others.
  • Whatever the plans now, there is always the possibility they will change partway through the year, requiring parents and students to quickly equip themselves for another new reality.
  • Fall 2020 means the addition of a new product into the back-to-school mix: child-friendly PPE—another factor complicating the communications equation.

It all adds up to a complex matrix of “what ifs”, but the ultimate message is clear: If retailers want to win this back-to-school season, they need communication that is hyper timely and regionally-varied. The fact that back-to-school planning varies not just across Canada but within individual provinces and boards makes it critical that marketing be targeted at a very local level. Homes a kilometre apart could be subject to different regulations.

There is always a lot of talk about flexibility in marketing; this fall, it will be more important than ever. Marketing tools and processes must enable easy, frequent outreach to customers. They must be able to “localize” messaging, allowing frontline marketers across various locations to customize content according to their region. These kinds of capabilities will be essential in the months to come as retailers ready themselves to be ready for anything.