Back-to-School in the Time of COVID: 3 Tips for Retailers


The back-to-school buying season is here, and both parents and retailers are preparing for an unprecedented, unpredictable event that won’t look anything like the sales of the past. The COVID-19 pandemic has likely changed the face of retail forever, and this fall’s back-to-school season will be a major test.

Retailers will be looking for creative ways to engage customers, and that starts with online shopping, where good marketing practices can connect the dots. An Acoustic survey found that email open rates have increased globally during the pandemic, especially in the consumer products sector. But to successfully connect with customers, and to make the best use of their own resources in an uncertain time, retailers will have to dig deeper into a few key trends.

Flip the script

One thing COVID-19 has impacted is the types of in-demand items for back-to-school. Traditionally, footwear and apparel make up the bulk of sales during this season, followed by office supplies and technology, and that’s where marketers have always focused. This year, however, technology will be a priority, as parents prepare for the potential that remote learning will continue.

And it’s not only the types of items needed that will be different. Parents who can afford to may be looking at big-ticket purchases like laptops and webcams. Back-to-school budgets may be squeezed by unexpected costs such as increased Internet speed to manage remote learning. Recognizing these new needs while finding creative ways to connect with the specific needs of consumers this fall will be critical.

Go mobile

COVID-19 is accelerating trends toward online purchases, but companies should look beyond browser-based experiences to deliver what consumers are looking for. Retailers without a mobile marketing plan in place for back-to-school will be in trouble. At a time where attention is limited, SMS marketing could be the key to increasing customer engagement, given that consumers tend to open these messages quicker and more often.

Customers are wary of in-store visits, for obvious reasons. The more that retailers can lean on marketing materials to make the entire experience seamless –making it easy to understand what’s in stock in the brick-and-mortar locations and what’s available online, facilitating buy-online-pickup-in-store, etc. – the better these companies will be able to meet shoppers where they are.

Stay flexible

Most companies plan their back-to-school strategies well in advance, meaning COVID-19 is throwing carefully laid plans to the wayside. Nimbleness and flexibility will be the watchwords for pivoting approaches and strategies. For example, some retailers may compile their email distribution lists up to 10 days before sending an email newsletter. But in this environment, 10 days might as well be 100 years. The more companies can customize and personalize their marketing in the moment, even on a store-to-store basis, the more they will have a chance to break through with consumers.

The 2020 back-to-school season will be uncharted territory for retailers. The first step is recognizing that the old ways of thinking won’t work. By staying nimble in approach, connecting with customers in an empathetic way that recognizes their needs, and using customized marketing through automations and SMS, retailers can retool their strategies and position themselves for a successful season.

-Melissa Tatoris, Chief Innovation Catalyst at Acoustic

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