Retailers Take on Back-to-School Shopping Amidst the Uncertainty of a Pandemic

Jamie Grill-Goodman
Senior Editor
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There’s no doubt this may be the strangest back-to-school season on record. As class supply lists hit parents’ inboxes, many are still debating if they will even send their children into the classroom this fall.

However, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten the normalcy of purchasing paper and pencils, there’s still time for retailers to ramp up their back-to-school promotions.

Retailers were 21% less likely to begin promotions in July in 2020, with more brands opting to push to August, according to a study fielded for RetailMeNot by Kelton: a Material company. Case in point, Kroger just kicked off its first Teachers and Honorary Teachers savings event. Teachers, school administrators and parents who shop on Wednesdays from August 5th through September 9th will receive an extra 10% on general merchandise, including school and craft supplies, toys, games, sporting goods, housewares, apparel and electronics.

"During these challenging and uncertain times, the enthusiasm for education that we've experienced from teachers, school administrators and parents alike has been uplifting,” said Valerie Jabbar, Kroger's group VP of merchandising. “We're thrilled to offer this exclusive discount to teachers and 'honorary teachers' across our family of stores as a way to show our gratitude for all they're doing for their students and our communities."

Kroger just kicked off its first Teachers and Honorary Teachers savings event on Wednesdays from August 5th through September 9th.

Parents with children in elementary school through high school say they plan to spend an average $789.49 per family, topping the previous record of $696.70 they said they would spend last year, according to the NRF. Spending is expected to total $33.9 billion, up from $26.2 billion last year and breaking the record of $30.3 billion set in 2012.

“Most parents don’t know whether their children will be sitting in a classroom or in front of a computer in the dining room, or a combination of the two," NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay said. “But they do know the value of an education and are navigating uncertainty and unknowns so that students are prepared.”

While schools still are determining reopening procedures, many parents may be opting to wait to purchases school supplies. While 71% of Americans do not feel that it is safe for children to resume in-person school this fall, 70% of those headed back-to-school will still participate in back-to-school shopping should school remain remote, a survey from Fluent found.

“Parents may be wary of sending students back to the classroom this fall, but these concerns are not likely to prevent them from shopping for back-to-school supplies,” Matt Conlin, president and co-founder of Fluent, tells RIS. “While the back-to-school transition will look very different for many families this year, parents still want to create productive work environments that offer children some semblance of normalcy. Marketers should acknowledge that things are not simply ‘backpacks and lunchboxes as usual’ and adjust their back-to-school campaigns to include deals on technology and workplace supplies – think printers, desk organizers, etc. – that will help to improve the at-home learning experience.”   

To help retailers with strategies to reach wary consumers, Deloitte’s 2020 report “Know your back-to-school consumer” reveals four distinct shopper types have emerged this summer. “The Undecideds,” it says, are most sensitive to the uncertainty of when school will re-open and will be late to back-to-school shopping with 52% planning to start shopping in August or later (vs. 37% average). Retailers that can avoid stock-outs late in the season will likely have an opportunity to engage with these consumers.

The report also suggests ramping up free shipping to secure sales from “The Digital Natives,” of which 68% are preferring to buy online and return in store. “The Safety-focused, Social Distancing Shoppers” are higher than average spenders. Their concerns for health drive 51% to visit an online-only retailer for back-to-school shopping (vs. 40% average) and 57% prefer retailers that offer buy-online-pick-up-in-store or curbside pickup (vs. 42% average). “The Deal Seekers” were the only group Deloitte found to be hunting all summer long for the best prices.

Shopping Safely

Amid safety concerns, this school year will also undoubtedly see a rise in digital shopping preferences. Seventy-three percent of students and 65% of parents anticipate shopping online for their back-to-school needs, according to a PayPal study.

Retailers should keep in mind that online shopping may be the primary (or only) choice for some customers, so it’s up to merchants to help them find what they're looking for, easily and safely, the study noted. That means acting on what customers will be looking for this season and potentially diversifying their online selection.

When it comes to fulfillment options, almost one-third of back-to-school shoppers expect to use contact-light options, including in-store and curbside pickup, for some of their online purchases, Coresight Research’s U.S. Survey Update from July 8 found. It also noted online continues to overtake in-store shopping for apparel. Around one-third of all respondents had bought apparel online in the previous two weeks, compared to 18.3% who had bought apparel in stores.

"This back to school season, we’re expecting to see a decline in purchases of things that need a fit, or are better tried on in-person, such as clothes and shoes," said Deborah Weinswig, CEO and founder of Coresight Research, a global research and advisory firm specializing in retail and technology. "You’ll see parents looking to make purchases that are done more easily and more safely online, whether masks or laptops or hygiene products. That said, even amid lower overall apparel purchases (26.3% of our respondents are spending less on apparel), more apparel purchases are happening online than in person right now."

Whether online or in-store, retailers still have time to capture back-to-school shoppers and help ease their retail experience this season. And if all else fails, shelving wine next to notebooks may be a winning combo.