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An e-commerce brand’s guide to back-to-school season

Illustration of a person using a laptop computer, surrounded by a backpack, a shoe, and headphones.

Stylish new sneakers, necessities, and trending clothing. There’s one thing about heading back to school after a long summer that always holds true: parents and students are in full-blown shopping mode.

And while this short season may fly under the radar for many brands, it’s an incredible opportunity to increase sales and loyalty – as long as it’s done right! But, when should brands start their back-to-school promotions? And what’s the best way to target school shoppers?

We’re covering these questions and more in today’s blog. Why? Because, while the summer season is still in full swing, many parents and students are already on the lookout for early bird discounts and deals to offset the consistently rising costs of living.

Keep reading for everything you need to know about the back-to-school season: what it is, why it’s important, trends to keep in mind, and how to ensure a successful campaign.

What is the back-to-school season?

The ‘back-to-school’ season is exactly what it sounds like: consumers getting ready to head back to the classroom in the fall.

Whether it’s parents who are purchasing their kids’ apparel and supplies for a new year, or college students who are leveraging their own income for dorm needs – shoppers everywhere are bound to be looking for a seamless and cost-effective back-to-school shopping experience.

And for direct-to-consumer brands, the period before the school year starts is essential for successful Q3 earnings. Why? Because it’s one of the biggest shopping events of the year. Plus, with the right approach, it can promote expanded brand reach, increase sales, and help engage loyal, repeat customers.

How long is the back-to-school season?

Believe it or not, back-to-school season has already begun. 

Consumers begin their search for school basics, supplies, and apparel in July and continue through early September. Typically, back-to-school sales peak in August right as the summer ends and the school year begins.

For brands who are looking to initiate successful back-to-school marketing campaigns, their timeline may look something like this:

May – June: Prepare, prepare, prepare

Like every good campaign, preparation is key. From the types of products offered to the messaging, your brand will need to agree upon a clear direction and establish KPIs for campaigns targeting back-to-school shoppers. May and June should be your time to iron out all of the details, answering questions like:

  • What products do we want to include in our back-to-school sale?
  • Who is our target audience?
  • Where do we want our campaigns to run?
  • What discounts are we offering?
  • What is our messaging?
  • What are our end goals for this campaign?

And much, much more!

June – July: Early bird specials

Just because beach days are still here doesn’t mean that brands shouldn’t be thinking about back-to-school sales! June and July bring forth price-conscious consumers (and eager parents!) seeking bargain deals before August’s crunch time. Brands that have a campaign in place for these months won’t have to worry about missing out on early bird sales – but this can only be accomplished with planning and strategy beginning as early as April and May.

August – September: It’s go time!

The most important months of the back-to-school season are August and July. Why? This is the period when most parents and college-aged students are online shopping for the upcoming school year. In fact, a survey from JLL found that a whopping 90% of parents plan to do their back-to-school shopping in August and September.

E-commerce brands that make sure to optimize their promotions later in the game will cater to the overwhelming majority of consumers who reserve their shopping for the last minute.

Why e-commerce brands should pay attention to back-to-school season

It’s the second-biggest retail event after the holiday season

Yes, you heard that right. The back-to-school season is the largest spending event for families after the holiday season. In 2023, back-to-school sales and back-to-college sales combined are expected to reach a whopping $135 billion. With almost 50 million school-aged students heading back to the classroom each year (kindergarten through 12th grade), there are plenty of busy parents making sure their kids have not only basic school supplies, but sports gear, apparel, and more.

Back to school spans multiple product categories

As we mentioned above, it isn’t all about apparel and footwear! When students are heading back to school, they’ll need much more than a few new outfits. College-aged students may want bedding for a dorm or furniture for an off-campus apartment. High schoolers on varsity sports teams will require specific footwear or athletic gear. Students of all ages will want to make sure they have the most up-to-date electronics: mobile devices, laptops, etc.

What does this mean for e-commerce brands? It’s more than likely that products in your inventory will fall within the ‘back to school’ category!

It’s a welcome opportunity to engage with Generation Alpha

Just when we thought we were getting comfortable connecting with Gen Z, Generation Alpha is (quite literally) the newest kid on the block. While brands will have to do most of their communication through Generation Alpha’s Millennial parents, these under-12 kids have a unique digital savviness – with many of them already having access to smartphones.

The back to school season is a perfect way for brands to connect and win the hearts of these younger consumers and their parents.

2023 Back-to-school shopping trends to watch

1. Back-to-school shopping is starting earlier

Like many retail events, more and more consumers are planning their shopping earlier than the previous years. Typically, shoppers do this as a way to offset the cost of purchasing new items. For example, a family who puts most of their back-to-school sales on a credit card in early July will have a few months to pay off any incurred debt before the school year begins. Plus, there are almost always sales for back-to-school shoppers who are purchasing products earlier than the rest of the crowd.

For the back-to-school season in particular, a survey by KPMG found that 62% of consumers are going to be stacking up on school supplies well before September. E-commerce brands who want to stay ahead of the game will need to have their ducks in a row by July for a seamless season.

2. Consumers are looking for discounts

It should be no surprise that potential customers are concerned about rising prices. While inflation may currently be on a downtrend, shoppers everywhere continue to proceed with caution. The biggest thought on their mind? Ways to save money.

The thing is, for college students, elementary students, and high school students alike, school supplies aren’t just nice to have. Many schools and universities require specific items like lecture clickers, uniform-approved clothing, athletic gear, and more.

Businesses that want to foster brand loyalty and cater to the current economy will need to develop a discount strategy to go hand-in-hand with their back-to-school approach. From special discounts for loyalty members to early-bird specials, brands can easily work in savings for cost-cautious consumers.

3. In-store shopping will hold a slight edge over online

With the 2020 pandemic woes behind us, more consumers are making their way back to in-store shopping, specifically for back-to-school sales. A study by Deloitte found that the majority of respondents plan on shopping in-store this season.

Why? For one thing, the prices online aren’t proving to be much better of a deal than the price tags in physical locations. Plus, for parents or students who are waiting until the last minute, in-store shopping ensures products are in their hands at the end of the trip, versus having to wait anxiously for a package.

4. Christmas in July

Christmas in July is nothing new – in fact, it’s been around for decades. Beginning in post-World War II America, Christmas in July started as a summertime retail event meant to boost sales for merchants striving to make it through to the winter holiday season. By appealing to shoppers who might want to score discounts and prep for the holidays, retailers were able to boost sales and clear out excess inventory.

In today’s day and age, Christmas in July isn’t as widely celebrated, but that’s not to say that retail sales don’t still spike during these summer months. Back to school has taken over as the main retail event in July, August, and even early September.

Interestingly enough, consumers who are already out shopping for their children’s new school year are more likely to start stocking up on Christmas gifts at the same time. Let’s face it, if there’s a good enough deal, parents have been known to snag items and hide them in the house until the holidays!

5 Back-to-school marketing campaign ideas

Consider product bundling

For busy parents and stressed school-agers, there’s nothing better than a back-to-school kit! When complementary products are bundled together, it’s a one-stop shop for consumers. The best part? Your products don’t have to be special back-to-school items. Basics and accessories are just as important as pencils and notebooks in the classroom.

30 percent off advertisement for girlfriend collective.

The Girlfriend Collective offers sustainable activewear that could be perfect for any college-aged student looking to be comfortable when heading from class to work to the gym. As a back-to-school campaign, they bundled products like leggings, sweaters, backpacks, and underwear with a steep 30% discount!

Targeting teachers as well as parents

Parents aren’t the only ones looking for back-to-school deals! Whether they require classroom decorations, supplies, or work outfits, teachers will most definitely be doing some shopping before the fall season. Brands that cater to teachers are bound to boost sales during the back-to-school season.

The Girlfriend Collective, in our example above, offered teachers an extra 20% off on top of their typical back-to-school sale – a stellar deal.

A sale for teachers and students.

Consider tailored back to school deals for loyalty members

Your most loyal customers should always be rewarded! Why? They consistently spend more than newcomers. In order to keep these repeat customers engaged and happy, offering specialty deals for those within your loyalty program is more likely to boost sales than casting a wider net to prospective customers.

Instead of only offering increased discounts, brands can get a bit more strategic about their loyalty program back-to-school campaigns by offering members:

  • A longer discount period
  • Free shipping
  • Exclusive product bundles
  • First access to new products

Merchandise your products for a back-to-school context

Instead of investing in an entirely new set of school supplies, retailers can re-position existing merchandise to save time, energy, and costs. Believe it or not, almost anything can be a ‘back to school’ or ‘back to college’ product if it’s marketed properly.

Apple’s ‘Bring on College’ campaign doesn’t feature any additional products than their usual gamut – it’s all in the approach and the deal.

An Apple ad merchandising products for college students.

Offer helpful resources/tips to aid back to school shopping

The big focus may be on relevant school supplies, but there’s another way that brands can grab online shoppers’ attention – content marketing. There are an incredible number of content pieces that will likely gain more traction during the back-to-school season when shoppers are continuously Googling ‘back to school.’ Brands should be leveraging all of their channels (blogs, email, and social media) to get the word out.

For example, an apparel brand might write a few blogs about trending back-to-school styles that include links to their products. Or, an email newsletter with packing tips for a more seamless start to the college semester. Whatever the approach, offering engaging content full of actionable tips and resources is bound to resonate with parents and students alike looking for a successful start to the school year.

Partner with a 3PL for a successful back to school season

The reality of the back-to-school season is that there are plenty of moving parts. Consumers are not only looking for deals and discounts, but they also want their products fast and in perfect condition. For e-commerce brands, this means the fulfillment side of the business is incredibly important when it comes to ensuring a positive customer experience.

The key to success? A fulfillment partner with operational expertise and technology that goes hand-in-hand. Partnering with an established, high-tech 3PL like Ryder E-commerce can be the difference between a customer who is satisfied with their back-to-school experience vs. one who won’t return.

Ultimately, the goal is to keep those back-to-school shoppers happy. And no matter if your customers are ordering products online, picking up curb side, or shopping in-store – they’ll want a hassle-free experience to combat the stress that comes with the end of summer!

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