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How Retailers Can Better Connect with Shoppers During Back-to-School Season

Back-to-School Shopping 2021: Tips for Retailers

by Camille Chin | July 7, 2021

Back-to-school shopping is one of the biggest spending seasons of the year. According to the National Retail Federation, families with kids in elementary through high school spent an average of US$696.70 in 2019 and US$789.49 in 2020. Families with college students spent even more: an average of US$976.78 (2019) and US$1059.20 (2020).

Following 15 months of remote and hybrid learning, many families have already begun preparing for a full return to the classroom in Fall 2021. Mastercard is predicting that apparel sales will skyrocket 78.2% year-over-year or 11.3% over 2019, which offers a better, pre-COVID-19 point of comparison. Gap Inc. has said that “customer exuberance” is setting up its Old Navy brand for a strong performance.

Big box stores will get a boost too. In a March 2021 online survey of 2000+ adults, 80% of respondents say they shop at retailers such as Target and Walmart to complete their back-to-school shopping lists. Target is planning for one of its biggest back-to-school seasons ever.

“The back-to-school period is going to be wildly successful,” Gordon Haskett analyst Chuck Grom said in an interview with Bloomberg recently. “You are essentially going to have two years’ worth of college kids going back to college for the first time.”

The anticipated back-to-school sales surge means that retailers must be prepared. Here are some tips to help retailers prioritize everything from inventory to marketing.

Rethink Store Layouts

According to a December 2020 survey by Square and Wakefield Research, 92% of consumers miss shopping in stores. Another survey revealed that 35% of respondents are planning to do back-to-school shopping in person, while 26% plan to shop both in-person and online.

To ease lingering anxieties about in-store, back-to-school shopping, feature signage about safety protocols prominently and reduce the number of displays on the floor to enable socially distant shopping. Instead consider an eye-catching power wall that will command attention.

In terms of shopping online, consider offering incentives for in-store and curbside pickup. In May 2021, The Harvard Business Review reported that 88% of consumers who have used BOPIS have made additional, unplanned in-store purchases when picking up an order placed online.

Reduce Customer Choices

Decision-making often felt overwhelming in 2020 so much so that analysis paralysis is trending in 2021. Anxiety over making choices is even pushing some shoppers to abandon their carts.

To alleviate back-to-school product overload, curate your school essentials via staff picks or recommendations by teachers or learning institutions to help guide shopper decisions. Alternatively, categorize your school items by age and/or grade.

Of course, how to buy can be another source of stress. Make your brand’s fulfillment methods clear (online orders, in-store or curbside pickup) to accommodate different preferences.

Inventory Including PPE

When it comes to inventory, Beth Goldstein, Executive Director and Industry Analyst at The NPD Group, recommends a conservative approach, after all, COVID-19 variants are still a risk. Her tip: opt for deeper rather than broader assortments. This will also help with analysis paralysis.

“It’s about being a little bit more thoughtful,” she told Footwear News in March 2021. “Maybe you have a deeper assortment and availability on some of the big key items, as opposed to having such large assortments. You hate to be in the situation where you don’t have enough inventory, but I think retailers are erring on that side rather than having too much.”

In addition to your regular merchandise, don’t forget to stock some PPEs. Face masks, gloves and hand sanitizer will be essential school supplies and parents will need plenty of extras. In a Tinuiti survey, 44% of survey respondents ranked PPEs as a first or second back-to-school priority for 2021.

Cross-Platform Ads and Promos

In an April 2021 Snapchat survey, more than half of the social media platform’s users said that new clothes, shoes, and sports apparel and equipment are at the top of their back-to-school shopping lists. Eighty-six percent of young consumers also said that they are on the social media platform when back-to-school shopping and 59% said they plan to use Snapchat for their fall sports shopping.

Customized advertising and promotions for both in-store and online shopping will be imperative to staying competitive, particularly when consumers are still spending cautiously post COVID-19. Geographical differences must be considered too (students in some states and provinces may be returning to classrooms full-time while others may not). Finally, don’t forget loyalty rewards. Good value for money and added incentives will win shopper confidence.

Back-to-school shopping is expected to edge upwards this season with traditional school supplies, digital supplies and PPE being priority purchases. Track which platforms your consumers are engaging with and use real-time metrics to optimize your customer segments for marketing campaigns that will bring your brand to the top of the class through Fall 2021 and the rest of the school year.

Need help optimizing your product assortments? Lacking real-time visibility on your customer activity? Email Jesta’s Marketing Department at to schedule a chat with one of our subject matter experts.



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