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Back-to-School Marketing & Shopping Trends [2021 Guide]

May 25, 2021
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Looking at back-to-school shopping trends over the last five years, it’s clear just how important back-to-school marketing has become. 

The average back-to-school spend per household in the United States increased year-on-year to the expected amount of $789+ in 2020. Back-to-college spending is expected to reach $1059.20 per family. 

Combined back-to-school and back-to-college sales account for around $101 billion in expenditure in the US alone, with approximately 55% of shoppers opting to shop online for back-to-school supplies in 2020. 

Potential revenue growth brings increased competition for eCommerce marketers and changing consumer trends, with parents sticking to essential products and searching for the best deals. This is especially true due to COVID-19, which has increased the spend for many households, as their children require more electronic devices and home ‘office equipment’ to be able to study from home.

To capitalize on back-to-school shopping, it’s important to review critical back-to-school data and trends so you can optimize your promotions for success. Adapting and personalizing marketing campaign ideas and promotion strategies based on shopping trends, is key to boosting back-to-school revenue for top eCommerce retailers and marketers.

This 2021 guide will highlight important back-to-school shopping trends and online shopping statistics you can use to fuel your 2021 strategies. It will also show converting back-to-school promotion examples and marketing ideas. 

We will cover:

  1. Market Size and Spend 
  2. Peak Shopping Times 
  3. Consumer Behavior and Trends 
  4. Leading Niches and Product Categories 
  5. Season Average Conversion Rates Per Industry
  6. Creating a Back-to-School Sales Promotion Strategy

Back-to-School Marketing Trends and Online Shopping Statistics to Fuel 2021 Strategies [+ Examples]

1. Back-to-School Market Size and Spend 

Back-to-school shoppers account for 50% of all school shopping and are expected to net billions in revenue this year. In 2020, parents, guardians, and students were expected to spend over $30 billion during the back-to-school shopping season. Let’s look at some key market size stats that drive this spending: 

  1. 50%+ of annual school-related spending occurs during the back-to-school season, from July to August. 
  2. There are currently around 56.4 million children enrolled in US schools in 54+ million households. 
  3. COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and lockdowns changed spending patterns in 2020, driving home office furniture and electronic back-to-school products. 
  4. The average spend per household reached $789+ in 2020, despite COVID-19 market changes. 

According to Statista, here’s what US parents expect to spend the most on back-to-school 2021, followed by clothing, accessories, and shoes.

back to school spending

Main Takeaway: The school supply market share is substantial and extends into a variety of industries and niches. However, you have only a couple of weeks to capitalize on the 50% of annual spending that happens during the peak back-to-school season.

Back-to-school sales promotions need to make a huge impact in a very short window. After ensuring your marketing campaigns bring potential shoppers to your store, onsite promotions within these top categories will play a pivotal role in converting traffic. 

For example, eCommerce retail giant Amazon is one brand that knows how to make a big impression in a limited time. Their back-to-school video marketing campaigns expand their reach, while their onsite promotions provide a one-stop-shop experience for back-to-school shoppers.

Amazon also dedicates a section of their online store to back-to-school product categories. They include high-value content, current deals, and easy access to any category.

back to school onsite promotion example amazon

2. Back-to-School Peak Shopping Times

Shoppers begin to search and shop for back-to-school products from July, and complete it once they get their school supply lists. According to an NRF back-to-school consumer survey conducted in 2020, 34% of back-to-school product consumers had received school supply lists by early August 2020, with only 9% of consumers shopping for school supplies before July.

back to school supplies list

According to Deloitte, 60% of shoppers begin shopping 4-6 weeks before school starts, and this generally peaks between the end of July and early August. This period generally accounts for around 60% of all back-to-school spending. 

eCommerce retail traffic and session increases during peak back-to-school shopping periods back this up. 

Here is exclusive back-to-school eCommerce retail data based on an analysis of over 2 billion sessions over 2020 and 2019. 

back to school season supplies

  1. Decrease time-to-purchase
  2. Increase digital revenue 
  3. Reduce promotional costs 
  4. Decrease journey abandonment 

To find out more, click here

Main Takeaway: As well as preparing for peak shopping weeks, eCommerce marketers need to develop a comprehensive back-to-school marketing strategy and marketing campaign calendar that doesn’t overlook pre and post-season shopping.
Based on previous buyer surveys and back-to-school marketing metrics, July and August are the most crucial revenue months for retailers. However, to get the most out of the back-to-school shopping season, you need to optimize your promotional strategy to account for pre-season browsers, peak shopping days, and last-minute shoppers.

Apple, for example, launched their new student and education discount deal in January of this year due to shifting back-to-school shopping trends brought on by COVID-19.

This is in addition to their summer back-to-school promotions which are open to current or newly accepted college students, parents of students, faculty, staff, and home school teachers of all grade levels.

3. Consumer Behavior and Trends 

According to leading consumer surveys and past consumer behavior, the most essential considerations shoppers have when choosing which retailer to buy from during the back-to-school season are: 

  1. Price: Consumers look for lower prices, deals, coupons, and bundled products. 
  2. Product: Consumers look for stores with a variety of options and/or those that most closely match their school supply lists. 

Convenience: Consumers look for more accessible shopping options, such as retailers that offer configured kits. This also includes making new trending categories available on short notice due to COVID-19 lifestyle and study changes according to new supply requirements and needs.

Additionally, consumers expect the following from back-to-school online-only eCommerce brands: 

  1. Discounts and sales 
  2. Free shipping 
  3. Competitive pricing 
  4. Great product quality

During 2020, price point was particularly important. With many kids learning from home and parents having to adjust their schedules or work to be home with them, parents chose the most affordable essentials. They chose retailers based on price, with some US parents reporting they went to five stores just to buy one mousepad. 

Additionally, learning from home costs more for parents in 2020, with parents having to pay more for Chromebooks and other home tech that they hadn’t planned for. 

Main Takeaway: When planning your 2021 back-to-school marketing campaign, eCommerce retail brands should focus their messaging on three key consumer shopping trends: price, product variety, and convenience. 

Optimizing 2021 back-to-school marketing promotion messaging to address one of these critical consumer pain points (price, product variety/bundling, or convenience) will increase your chance of converting shoppers. Additionally, brands will need to navigate staying highly price-competitive without sacrificing profit. 

The best way for eCommerce marketers and managers to navigate this is with strategic onsite promotions, which offer convenient bundles, free shipping promotions, and banner deals optimized for specific shoppers. 

Here’s one 2020 back-to-school onsite promotion example from Crayola

By combining various onsite promotions, including free shipping and bundled product discounts (class packs) with digital BOGO campaigns, you can address shoppers’ preferences at every touchpoint.

Pro Tip: If you want to take it a step further, you can automatically diversify these promotions to boost your back-to-school KPIs with Intent-Based Promotions.

Intent-based promotions will enable you to offer the minimum promotion needed, if any, at the ideal moment in the customer journey to convert a sale. This will save your margins and strengthen your brand perception during the peak back-to-school shopping season.

Here’s how it works:

4. Leading Niches and Product Categories 

Due to COVID-19 consumer changes, 2020 saw a significant spike in demand for virtual school supplies, including Chromebooks, headphones, and desks. However, it’s not just COVID driving back-to-school electronic and tech product sales. 

Here’s a breakdown of leading back-to-school niches and product categories in 2019 and 2020

A 2020 Numerator back-to-school consumer survey found that over half of households had bought or were planning to buy: 

  1. Pens and pencils 
  2. Paper or notebooks 
  3. Shoes or clothes 
  4. Hand sanitizer 
  5. Disinfectant sprays or wipes 
  6. Crayons, markers, or colored pencils 
  7. Facial tissues 
  8. Backpacks or lunch boxes/bags 
  9. Craft supplies 
  10. Face masks or coverings 

While the NRF back-to-school consumer survey highlighted a higher intention to buy tech products including laptops, headphones, and tablets.

Main Takeaway: To push revenue success of back-to-school marketing, run promotions on product categories that mirror back-to-school shopping trends, and cater for COVID-19 related trending product changes. Additionally, brands should focus on BOGO campaigns, product bundles, and class kits to make shopping across various categories more convenient for back-to-school shoppers. 

In 2021, you can expect back-to-school technology and electronics followed by school clothing and shoe sales to remain the biggest back-to-school sellers. You can dominate your niche by combining categories in your promotions to provide a one-stop shopping experience.

A retailer that creates winning back-to-school campaigns year after year is Staples. Here are two examples of their recent spot-the-difference campaigns.

5. Back-to-School Season Average Conversion Rates Per Industry

While some back-to-school trending products change from year to year, there are categories that consistently excel and offer brands the best conversion potential despite shifts in products. 

Brands that accommodate for back-to-school shopping and product trends and changes, while still capitalizing on long-term high-conversion categories that consistently convert, can dominate the back-to-school shopping season.  

It’s a balancing act. 

You want to plan far ahead for high-converting categories, but leave room for new product trends and market changes. Additionally, eCommerce retailers who don’t normally target back-to-school shoppers, can take advantage of these converting categories during the peak season to get in on the action. 

Let’s take a look at average conversion rates per industry during the back-to-school shopping season in 2020. 

While 2020 showed a considerable uplift in conversions and sessions, the conversion rate decreased, except for the personal hygiene category. This makes sense considering the new demands Covid-19 posed to shoppers. 

In addition, shoppers were probably browsing more in most cases, but purchasing less – except for personal hygiene goods.

Main Takeaway: Even if you’re not traditionally selling in the ‘school supplies’ industry, you can capitalize on these high-demand categories during peak back-to-school shopping season. When creating your 2021 back-to-school season marketing plan, consider promoting products and categories that are both in high demand and most likely to convert.  

Poppin is a brand that tweaks their category and brand messaging for the back-to-school shopping season specifically. 

Their main market is shoppers looking for office supplies. However, during the back-to-school shopping season, they target high school, college, and grad school students with strategic promotions using the same brand product categories but with different product combinations and messaging in their promotions.

Bonus Tip: 5 Quick 2021 Back-to-School Marketing Ideas That Convert 

  1. Hashtag and influencer campaigns 
  2. Back-to-school onsite promotions 
  3. BOGO and bundled deals 
  4. Social competitions and games 
  5. Give-back programs 

6. Creating a Converting 2021 Back-to-School Sales Promotion Strategy 

Previous back-to-school shopping trends leave no doubt that retailers who successfully push back-to-school campaigns will dominate in 2021. This year’s competition will be fierce and online promotions will play a vital part in your back-to-school marketing strategy. 

Bonus Content: 12 Sales Promotion Examples That Convert

What will set your brand apart this year is not only combining your onsite sales promotions throughout your marketing campaign calendar, but also optimizing them for each specific shopper – personalized based on price, convenience, or product. 

This will ensure you can boost sales while limiting profit loss and maintaining brand equity, ensuring you get the most out of the season. 

Conclusion 

Planning ahead for your back-to-school strategy – based on sound back-to-school marketing and shopping trends – should be your top priority in ensuring 2021 success. This means: 

  1. Capitalizing on peak season (July through August) revenue potential 
  2. Offering sales discounts and price incentives along each touchpoint 
  3. Combining categories for variety and back-to-school shopping convenience 
  4. Focusing on products that drive conversions 
  5. Optimizing sales promotions through customer intent and being ready to adapt to market uncertainties and changes due to COVID-19 

However, it’s important to acknowledge that COVID means parents still face some uncertainty regarding school closures, evolving school supply lists, and procedures this year. 

Therefore, while eCommerce retailers need to plan ahead, they also need to be prepared to pivot if there are last-minute market changes. This makes dynamic and personalized promotions and marketing – which are based on each specific shoppers’ needs in real-time – a vital tool for dominating the 2021 back-to-school season. To learn more about how intent-based promotions can boost online revenue and get them set up in time for the 2021 back-to-school shopping season, get in touch with our Intent-Based Promotion experts.

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