colorful line illustration of school-themed scene - back to school marketing

Record-Breaking Back-To-School Spending And Your Q4 Strategy

Welcome to the new 2020 – 2021 academic year! In the midst of a pandemic and civil unrest, kids are heading back to school. Whether classes are in-person, partially online or completely virtual is up to the individual school district. But despite the massive shifts happening in the way students are educated in the U.S., back-to-school and back-to-college spending have already surpassed previous years, news that bodes well for the holiday season and your Q4 holiday marketing strategy.

The Back-to-Class Situation Is…Uncertain

2020… am I right? This year has brought with it more change and more challenges than we’ve seen in decades – far more than any of us were prepared to process when we celebrated the arrival of a new year at midnight on January 1st. The world is not what it was six months ago, let alone a year ago.

A couple times a week, if not every night, local and national news outlets talk about the new school year and the ongoing challenges parents, kids, educators and school administrators around the country face as they ramp up for the 2020-2021 academic year.

If it feels to you like we’re venturing into the great unknown that’s because we are.  The good news is, this doesn’t need to have a negative impact on your back-to-school marketing strategy. Online shopping trends have been on an upward trajectory for years, and the pandemic has pushed ecommerce forward four to six years. Right now, online shopping accounting for $1 in every $5 consumers spend.

But don’t let the fact that fewer people are venturing into brick and mortar stores deter you from crafting marketing strategies to get them into stores (assuming you’ve got the social distancing/sanitizing situation under control). These campaigns are still very relevant in today’s market, and we’re here to help you navigate your way through it.

We know the how, the when and the who, and the best way to plug them all into your B2S campaigns. So get comfy, take your seat at the front of the class,  and listen up.

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Back-to-School Spending for the 2020-21 Academic Year Is Way, Way Up

Consider our pearls clutched. The National Retail Federation’s annual survey predicts back-to-school 2020 will be the highest B2S spending year in recent history.


Last year, the first U.S. schools started their fall sessions on July 23, 2019. This year, schools that would normally have opened in July are still scrambling to install hybrid schedules in the midst of this second wave of coronavirus cases. Parents in Cobb County, GA protested online-only K-12 schooling, calling for public schools to open and for their kids to head back into school buildings.

Meanwhile, educators and teacher unions in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and school districts across the country, large and small, are pushing back with protests of their own, even considering strikes.

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Higher learning institutions have begun on-campus learning, but the 25,000 new cases of COVID-19 snaking their way through dorm rooms and lecture halls on college campuses has forced many colleges to send students home within just a few weeks of reopening.

Then there’s the uncertainty around the quality of education kids will be getting…

Since the 2019-2020 school year ended so abruptly, a lot of kids simply didn’t finish the school year, even though they’re starting the next grade this year. Some households didn’t have the tech in place to shift to online learning. Some schools didn’t have the resources to move to a virtual-only learning plan. Some parents didn’t have the specialized skill it takes to teach their kids what they needed to learn because they didn’t know what their kids needed to learn. None of us were prepared for this.

So, parents are extra-vigilant now, investing in learning subscriptions, an infinite library of age-appropriate workbooks, and all the bells and whistles they can get to turbo boost their child’s education. Parents are going into this academic year with even stronger convictions around the importance of their children receiving the best education possible.

And while there are plenty of parents who are convinced kids need to be back in school, there are probably just as many who are concerned that American schools are unprepared to switch to a primarily internet-based interface. They fear that because of this unpreparedness, virtual learning this fall won’t be much better than the fiasco that we all experienced this spring.

Like we said, it’s a mess.

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With so much uncertainty surrounding the upcoming school year, educators, parents, and students are stocking up on supplies to ensure they’re prepared for whatever the months ahead may hold. As well, the need for devices, upgraded technology, desks and other furniture for in-home work spaces is driving up back-to-school spending.

Total spending for K-12 and college combined is projected to reach $101.6 billion – this is an increase of almost $21 billion dollars from 2019’s total of $80.7 billion. This is the first time that projected spending will shatter the $100 billion mark.

Bar graph from NRF showing planned back to school 2020 spending.jpg

Parents with children in kindergarten through twelfth grade expect to spend an average of $789.49 per family, again surpassing the previous record of $696.70 that was planned last year. Total spending is expected to hover right around  $33.9 billion, up from $26.2 billion last year and breaking the previous all-time record of $30.3 billion set in 2012.

Post-secondary education is traditionally where most of the spending happens, and this year is no different. Back-to-college spending is expected to reach $1,059.20 per household, which exceeds last year’s record of $976.78.

Bar chart from NRF showing planned Back-to-college spending

College spending is expected to total $67.7 billion, up from $54.5 billion last year and breaking 2018’s historical high record of $55.3 billion.

We know that for the most part, parents aren’t really spending on school clothes, right? Who knows how many kids will actually spend the first semester in school? So where is this money going to be spent?

Sixty percent of college shoppers plan to buy electronics, up from 53 percent in 2019, and they expect to spend more at an average $261.52, up from $234.69. The amount being spent on dorm furnishings average $129.76, up from $120.19. Spending on clothing is predicted to be about the same  at $148.37 on average, compared with $148.54. Finally, the budget set for school supplies for undergrad students will rise slightly to $83.78, up from $71.92.

These are unprecedented times indeed, but framed by this silver lining: if back-to-school sales are up, holiday sales are likely to be strong as well.

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Time, However Uncertain It May Be, Is Actually On Your Side This Year

The NRF says that as of early July, consumershad finished only 17 percent of their shopping. Most of them attributing this to not fully knowing what to shop for. Only 10 percent had received lists of required school supplies. The other parents? Well, they have to wait for school districts to decide what the 2020-2021 school year is going to look like.

To give you some context, in previous years, school shopping lasted from May to October – about 150 days. But this year, supply chain issues and restrictions on in-store shopping during the spring has delayed the back-to-school shopping season. After all, a lot of parents still don’t know what will happen with school this year.

According to The Washington Post, 80 percent of parents want a mix between in-person and online learning to take place throughout the school year. This explains the surge in  purchases of computers, home furnishings and other items that support the school-at-home approach. Here are  a few household-specific purchases that are expected to be made. 

  • Laptops, 36 percent
  • Computer speakers/headphones, 22 percent
  • Other peripherals such as a mouse or flash drive, 21 percent
  • Printers, 17 percent
  • Calculators, home furnishings such as desks or chairs, and workbooks, 17 percent

Spending on K-12 students continues to grow without regard to their chosen learning environment. Spending on school supplies is slightly up. Traditional school supplies such as pencils and paper see a projected average spending of $131.37, up from $117.49.

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Takeaways From B2S Shopping That’ll Impact Your Q4 Marketing Strategy

The coronavirus has had a massive impact on how we make purchases and where people shop, right? We’re all trying different things, shopping in new places (often determined by who has, or is able to get, what we’re actually looking for). Eighty-eight percent of consumers surveyed say the coronavirus will affect their B2S shopping in some way, shape, or form this year. LOYALTY AND RETENTION ARE THE KPIs BRANDS ARE AFTER THIS YEAR

If you’ve made an attempt to buy something from your normal spot only to discover the store didn’t have it, you couldn’t find it online, and there was no indication you’d be able to get it when you need it, you probably understand why 75% of Americans have tried new shopping behavior during the crisis, including new methods, brands and places. 

For many retailers, marketing KPIs have shifted from getting new customers to keeping the ones they have, as loyalty wanes in the face of supply chain challenges and shoppers’ growing preference for partronizing stores that enforce masking, social distancing, and contactless shopping.

Last year, 29 percent of back-to-school purchases were made online. This year, in light of fluctuating numbers of new COVID-19 cases, 43 percent of back-to-school shoppers plan to do even more of their shopping online. COMPARISON SHOPPING IS A NORMAL PART OF THE B2S SHOPPING PROCESS

That said, expect there to be even more in the area of comparison shopping. Nearly one in three B2S shoppers will be comparison shopping, and this creates an opportunity for brands to show up at one of those key touch points with a little personalization magic. Take a look at a few of the stats we published last year for back-to-school shopping.

Back to School stats from 2019

For brands, personalization will be pivotal this year for all of your Q3 and Q4 marketing strategies. With health concerns driving how and where consumers shop, it’s up to brands to prime customers to give them a reason to come into the store, or head to your brand’s ecommerce platform.

Remember, parents are trying to avoid going into multiple stores, and are looking for the easiest way to finish all of their back-to-school shopping with as little risk as possible. The shifts in how people plan to shop for B2S supplies are further reflected by the fact that 55 percent of K-12 shoppers are already planning to buy online. In 2016, online sales didn’t even account for 10 percent of B2S spending.

If we dive a little deeper we see all other shopping destinations are projected to experience declines:

●       37 percent of consumers plan to go to department stores (down from 53 percent)

●       36 percent plan to go to discount stores (down from 50 percent)

●       30 percent  plan to go to clothing stores (down from 45 percent)

●       23 percent office supply stores (down from 31 percent)

Similarly, the majority of college shoppers (43 percent) plan to shop online.

Projected in-store shopping sees the following:

●   31 percent will go to discount stores

●   26 percent plan to shop in department and office supply stores

●      25 percent plan to go to college bookstoresYOU’LL NEED A GAME PLAN

While it’s the parents and caretakers who supply the market with the majority of purchasing power, students both influence purchases and contribute their own money to buy what they want.

Many Gen Z shoppers will use Instagram for product discovery, YouTube to find reviews and make final purchasing decisions, and Snapchat to document their experience with your brand.

In the same way, Moms rely on Pinterest and Instagram for inspiration and product discovery, YouTube for reviews, then organize their shopping lists using Pinterest (then it’s back to Instagram to visually document their experiences with your brand (OR Facebook groups)). That said (and you knew it was coming) it does make sense to target your audience by working with an influential storyteller.

Customizing your content and offer for each shopper (moms, dads, college, Gen Z) is vital going forward for the back-to-school shopping season. – Saphia Lanier, from our post, “All the Stats You Need to Rock Your Back-to-School Campaign”

According to Katherine Cullen with NRF, “College consumers — already a digitally active generation — have gotten used to many other aspects of their lives moving online. A recent survey conducted by Barnes & Noble College Insights of 1,108 college students aged 18-24 found the demographic’s social media usage has gone up as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. TikTok has seen the largest increase: 75 percent of TikTok users report their usage of the platform has gone up since the start of the pandemic.”

However-and this is a big HOWEVER-Cullen cautions marketers to be aware that although Gen Z students enjoy spending massive amounts of their time on a wide range of social media platforms, they still use Instagram for brand surfing, and 47 percent of Gen Zers who follow brands on Instagram have made a purchase on the platform. Enter influencers.

chart showing percentage of social media users who engage with brands on each channel

Use Back-to-Class 2020 As a Template for Your Q4 Strategy

This year, back-to-class spending will be at an all-time high and the majority of that spending will take place online. Your customers will be buying based on product availability, convenience (including shipping options), and the safety measures put in place by the store.

You have to personalize, whether that means working with the right micro- or macro-influencers to spread the word about your product on Instagram, or getting the attention of moms (nearly half of whom are shopping for organizational products while also shopping for back-to-school stuff) by having their favorite Pinners post content that embeds your product in search-optimized posts. The benefits of looping influencers into your Q4 marketing strategy are powerful and can have lasting impact when your influencer campaigns are properly structured. We can help with that, actually.

We’re a group of creators, marketers, and data geeks. We’ve leveraged the power of research to forge ongoing relationships with thousands of influencers.  The campaigns that we create maintain the attention of your audience from start to finish. Not only are they effective, they’re memorable, and they’ll  help drive growth in your business far after the campaign has run.  Wanna talk to a human about it? Click below to schedule a strategy session!

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