Back-to-School Buying Looks Very Different This Year

This year’s back-to-school retail season is understandably… a mess. While some categories (like home computers and home office gear) are up, the typical back-to-school rush for new clothes and sneakers and notebooks is facing major disruption as parents grapple with in-person versus at-home schooling.

“The best word for consumer sentiment is still confusion. Kantar’s polling finds 13% of consumers are comfortable sending children back to school ‘as soon as possible,’ 14% want to wait more than six months, and 25% fall somewhere in between one and five months. More than half of also say they don’t know,” writes Sarah Mahoney in MediaPost.

Given this massive uncertainty, it’s no wonder retailers are cutting back on more traditional back-to-school (BTS) ad spend.

“So far, Kantar says retailers have spent $23 million on BTS ads between June 22 and Aug. 8, compared with $76 million spent during a similar period last year,” Mahoney notes. “Those ads came from just six retailers, compared to 100 in 2019.”

Noticeably absent are the often hilarious fall TV ads featuring dancing parents pushing loaded shopping carts. Tone matters, and ignoring the current confusion and concern of nearly every parent of school-age kids, it would be easy for a brand to get it very, very wrong.

Meanwhile, shopping priorities have, quite understandably, changed and retail ads reflect that.

“Consumers still face a great deal of uncertainty even as school begins to start and are further behind in their back-to-school spending than they have been in years,” says NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay, in its recent report. “At this point, the majority of families expect to spend as much as they thought earlier this summer, if not more, and it’s largely because of the need to spend more on electronics.”

There’s no magic bullet to navigate through this, only the same advice I’ve been counseling since this started. Advertising during the tough times … even if your budget is scaled back … is one of the best ways to ensure you’ll be around when the good times come back around. And advertising in print is extremely powerful right now.

Help your ad partners get past their fear of being tone-deaf, by reaching out and proactively helping the craft the right messages. In other words, become an essential resource for your ad partners. Educate more than sell, and be willing to listen to their concerns and challenges. And maybe reach out to the markets that are advertising, supplying families with the electronics and office gear they will be buying this fall.

Adaptation, folks, continues to be the name of the game.