The back to school season is in full swing, and it continues to be one of the biggest shopping periods of the year. The National Retail Federation forecasts back to school and back to college spending to reach $82.2 billion in the United States, with an estimated average spend of $942.17. According to the NRF, back to school shoppers are planning to spend most on apparel, though categories such as electronics, shoes, and school supplies are also quite popular.

We’re seeing a similar story in Europe. The back to school market in the United Kingdom, for instance, is estimated to be around £1.45b, and according to The Drum, «while uniforms and stationery will make up a large proportion of this market, the increasing requirement for technology in the classroom means that edu-tech continues to be a growth opportunity for retailers.”

Clearly, the coming weeks are brimming with opportunities to sell and engage consumers. If you’re looking to capitalize on this year’s back to school shopping season, the following steps will help you win.

1. Beef up the in-store and merchandise experience.

Most back to school merchandise (e.g., electronics and supplies) can easily be commoditized, which means consumers can find them on Amazon and other stores. To compete, you need to offer unique and exclusive experiences that shoppers won’t find anywhere else. These may include:

Events – In-store events give shoppers the chance to engage with your brand in ways that online channels can’t. When executed correctly, these initiatives can improve brand perception and drive sales.

Have a look at what tween apparel store Justice did earlier in the season. In honor of back to school, Justice stores around the US hosted live fashion shows to give girls the chance to show off their back to school outfits.

The initiative was a success and helped drive in-store traffic and engagement for the brand.

Collaborations – Partnerships and collaborations — be it with brands, influencers, or even other retailers — can be highly effective in combating commoditization. You can use such partnerships to create exclusive merchandise and experiences that elevate brand perception and set you apart from your competitors.

Some examples of successful collaborations include Warby Parker’s partnership with fashion photographer Amanda de Cadenet, and TOMMYXGIGI, Tommy Hilfiger’s collaborative collection with Gigi Hadid.

Retail pop-ups – Pop-up stores have been around for a while now, but they continue to gain steam because of the numerous benefits they offer. These stores can easily be reinvented, they’re (relatively) mobile, and they allow merchants to test markets and concepts without the overhead of a traditional lease.

Digital-first brands such as Birchbox and Modcloth used pop-up shops to determine where to set up permanent stores, while musicians such as Drake, Kanye West, and the Foo Fighters are also also using pop-ups to make up for declining revenue.

Establishing pop-up stores around timely events (such as back to school) can help you capitalize on the season. Last year, for example, Limited Too, the discontinued children’s brand from the 90s, came back to life temporarily with a pop-up store in New York.

2. Win over customers through discounts

Like it or not, discounts will be a big driver of purchase decisions. 79% of retailers will offer more back to school discounts this year, and 3 out of 4 will run deeper discounts in 2018.

Staying competitive this season will likely require discounting on your part, but this doesn’t mean that your margins have to suffer. Implementing smart discounting tactics, such as conditional promotions or tailored offers can help you drive sales without killing your profits.

This year, many retailers are offering back to school discounts exclusively to educators and students. Apple, for instance, recently launched a back to school promotion in the US, Canada, Mexico, as well as several European countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Germany, and more.

For a limited time, qualified purchasers (i.e. school employees, parents, and students) can receive a free or discounted pair of Beats headphones with an eligible purchase of a Mac or iPad Pro.

See if you can do something similar with your offers. Instead of blanket promotions, give discounts to specific groups of shoppers (e.g., students), so you can still drive sales without slashing prices for everyone.

For a limited time, qualified purchasers (i.e. school employees, parents, and students) can receive a free or discounted pair of Beats headphones with an eligible purchase of a Mac or iPad Pro.

See if you can do something similar with your offers. Instead of blanket promotions, give discounts to specific groups of shoppers (e.g., students), so you can still drive sales without slashing prices for everyone.

3. Hire right (and train accordingly)

Keep your stores well-staffed with employees who can effectively interact with parents and students. The best people to have on the sales floor are associates who are in touch with industry trends and are adept at guiding and engaging shoppers.

If you haven’t done so yet, implement seasonal training sessions with your team and get them up to speed with the trends around your merchandise. If you sell electronics, for example, then it would be helpful for employees to know which gadgets are best for students. Selling apparel? Then having knowledge of campus trends is a must.

Seasonal training materials such as handouts or posters can also be helpful. Cara Wood, a former retail associate, shares how her employer set up a “Key 10” poster with cross-selling recommendations in her store’s back room. This poster, she says, helped improve her performance on the sales floor.

Retailers can “can provide its employees with information on which products are most likely to be bought by the same person,” she shares. “My store, a women’s clothing store, did this by creating a poster once a month of the “Key 10” items from that launch that formed a few must-have outfits.”

She continued,  “this poster included not just information about the items we were meant to learn, but they actually chose the Key 10 items based on what sold well together, making it easier for us to upsell new items.”

4. Get social

While parents will be doing most of the spending, their purchase decisions will be heavily influenced by their kids. Running campaigns that win the hearts and minds of younger generations will help improve brand awareness and sales this back to school season.

How do you do that? Two words: social media.

Multiple studies have shown that young shoppers (particularly Gen Z) are influenced by various social networking apps and sites. Research by Bluecore found that 85% of Gen Z consumers use social media to discover products, while a study by Yes Lifecycle Marketing found that 1 in 5 Gen Z consumers expressed that Snapchat influences their purchase decisions.

Clearly, social media plays a significant role in the retail journey of younger consumers. That’s why it’s important to ensure for your back to school campaigns to have a strong social component.

The back to school events by tween apparel retailer Justice that we mentioned above is a perfect example of this. In addition to an in-store fashion show, the events also offered plenty of Instagram opportunities. Justice set up beautiful backdrops and encouraged attendees to share photos with the branded hashtag, #JusticeRunway.

What’s more, select events had appearances by tween influencers. YouTube and Instagram sensations such as Heaven King, TRINITEE, the GEM Sisters, and the D’ambrosio showed up at some of the stores, paving the way for increased social media activity.

5. Pay attention to timing

While many shoppers tend to complete their back to school shopping weeks before school starts, a significant chunk will wait until the last minute to complete their shopping to-do lists.

This is particularly true in the United States, where shoppers wait for promotions around Labor Day weekend (Aug 31-Sept 3, 2018). If your stores have a presence in the US, be sure you have something compelling planned on these dates.

It’s also important to note that many shoppers plan to buy back to school items as needed, so retailers should anticipate the needs of students and parents throughout weeks and months after school begins.

6. Don’t forget about digital commerce

While most back to school shoppers intend to complete their purchases offline, ecommerce will still take a sizeable chunk of this season’s back to school spending, so it’s important to have a strong online presence.

Retailers looking to step up their digital commerce efforts should put customer convenience at the heart of their ecommerce strategy. While offline shoppers appreciate rich experiences and are more willing to linger in-store, people who shop online want to find what they need as quickly as possible.

A good online tactic this season is to have a dedicated back to school section on your website where shoppers can find all their supplies from one place. Retailers such as Walmart are taking things a step further by allowing customers to shop from back to school lists specific to their location and grade. All they need to do is visit the Back to School page on Walmart’s website, enter their zip code or city, and select from a list of schools.

«Walmart has always been known for our low prices, but giving parents time back is also valuable currency when they’re deciding where to shop for all their back-to-school needs,» said Scott Bayles, Walmart’s Dean of Back-to-Class in an official statement.

If you’re have both online and offline stores, you can ensure a convenient shopping experience through click and collect, a service that lets customers pick up their online purchases in-store. Click and collect not only drives traffic in-store, but research from the International Council of Shopping Centers found that 69% of shoppers who opt for click and collect end up purchasing additional items during the same trip.

7. Stay on top of your inventory.

Back to school is an incredibly busy season. Merchandise moves fast and shoppers, particularly during the latter part of the season, are rushing to complete their purchases.

For these reasons it’s important to keep a closer eye on your inventory to ensure that you’re shelves are stocked with the right products at the right time. Your metrics need to be tracked in real-time, which means every time you make a sale, your stock levels should update accordingly.

This will allow you to replenish your shelves quickly, so you can avoid losing sales. Effective inventory management also helps you prevent overstocks. Tracking your sales and inventory data will give you insights into what’s selling — and what it isn’t — so you can craft the right promotions and ensure that you sell more of the right products.

Wrapping up

Winning the back to school shopping season requires investments in your in-store experience, your marketing campaigns, your staff, and your website. Evaluate your back to school strategy by looking at each of these components, then take the necessary steps to improve.

You still have several weeks left to win the back to school shopping season. Make sure you end it with a bang.

Feature Image by Mike Fox on Unsplash


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