How to Prepare Your Shop for Back-to-School Shopping

Back-to-school season has changed. After COVID-19, it’s not just about school supplies and Jansport anymore. “Parents have never been less interested in matching backpack-and-lunch box sets,” wrote Brandie Weikle for the Toronto Star. Thanks to COVID-19 and lockdowns, writes Weikle, “That narrative has been disrupted.”

What remains of the back-to-school season in the wake of a pandemic? Students still need school supplies, of course, but they also need a new way of looking at school. Today’s best shops do more than focus on selling bulk pencils on discount: they consider the entire range of student needs. If you want your shop to succeed in this year’s back-to-school season, there are some clear steps you can follow.

Step One: Become a Kid Again

To prep your shop for back to school, your first instinct will be to put yourself in the parents’ shoes. And that’s a good instinct, but it doesn’t hurt to think about the kids as well.

For starters? Not every kid is exactly thrilled about the return of school.

That’s what Kleenex found out when it launched a new back-to-school campaign: a lot of negative emotions packed into the season. 91% of students were worried about grades, getting lost on their first day, and being late for class. Two out of three students worried about fitting in.

In response, they created a “share Kleenex” campaign on social media, #ShareKleenexCare. People—kids and parents alike—started sharing their back to school experiences: new friends, challenging first classes, the whole emotional gamut of waving summer vacation behind.

Even if we don’t think of it as a back-to-school product, Kleenex became a part of that conversation. And why not? Joy Seusing, VP of Bic, warns against rigid thinking. “It’s all about being as agile and flexible as possible with your plans and pivoting wherever you can. A key part of that is working closely with customers and [watching] how they are shopping.”

The brand Danimals followed that strategy, as well. They came up with an “adventures at home” campaign. Their goal: resonate with kids stuck at home due to COVID. It reframed their products in a new light, from the perspective of a child’s imagination.

Even if you consider yourself a small shop, chances are you can find similar opportunities. One way you can do this is to get started early. According to PRWeek, Danimals yogurt “typically starts getting ready a year in advance.” The time to start thinking about your back-to-school specials and bundles isn’t when the season’s already here. It’s right now.

Step Two: Find Out What Really Sells During Back-to-School Season

Think back to your favorite back-to-school memories. Chances are you’re imagining old friends. Trapper keepers. Pens and notebooks. The smells of pencil shavings and new textbooks.

These can be great memories. But they can also have almost no bearing on actual back-to-school shopping habits. Here’s why.

  • Parents spend more than you think. According to the National Retail Federation, parents of elementary to high school students spend an average of over $780 per family. It represents a market that has since exceeded $30 billion every year. In other words, there’s a lot more money out there than just what parents are spending on pencils and notebooks.

  • Most money doesn’t go to school supplies. Statista’s breakdown of back-to-school spending shows just $131 average spent on school supplies. Parents have other concerns than pens and pencils. More money goes to shoes ($149), clothing/accessories ($234), and electronic equipment ($274). This alone should make any small store rethink what constitutes “back to school offerings.”

  • People forget about university students. The studies above tend to focus on elementary and high school students. Yet the spending is even more different for university students. They have to think about much more than supplies: furnishing apartments, decorating dorms, and parent gifts to help remind students of home. If you work with ceramics, wood, and textiles like knitting and silk screen printing, you can’t afford to ignore the back-to-school season, either.

In all, less than 20% of back-to-school money goes towards those supplies we got so excited about as kids. You don’t have to sell pencil pouches to make the back-to-school season a priority. If your shop helps dress people, decorate their dorms, or even sells anything remotely student-friendly as a back-to-school gift, don’t miss out on the most important shopping season in late summer.

Strategies for Increasing Sales During Back to School Season

Once you’ve embraced the possibility that your shop is more back-to-school friendly than you might have imagined, the next question is: how? How do you tailor your products for back-to-school season and capture some of that enthusiasm?

First, consider your audience. What are parents looking for? According to Forbes, price was the biggest factor driving buying decisions, at a rate of 76%. In second place, product availability (63%) mattered, while free shipping (46%) also had a noticeable impact.

Armed with this knowledge, all you have to do is tailor your back-to-school offers to those needs.

Start with discounts, bundles, and specials. All three of these hit on the first factor above: price.

Yes, you can make waves simply labeling a product as a back-to-school “special.” One search of Big Cartel stores right now will yield all sorts of “sold out” notifications for back-to-school update cards and clothes. This doesn’t only demonstrate market demand, but serves as a nice reminder to stay stocked when the season hits in earnest.

But bundling your products will appeal to parents who are bargain-hunting. Look at your store and see if you can create back-to-school kits out of what you offer. For example, Crayola often bundles its colored pencils, markers, and crayons together. At the college level, furnishing stores like DormCo often offer “Complete dorm sets” and bedding. At Bed, Bath, and Beyond, there’s an entire “back to school” section on its website, including both individual products and luggage set bundles.

You can follow in those footsteps even if your store isn’t exactly as big as Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Here at Big Cartel, we’ve seen:

  • Photographers offer unique “back to school” photo sessions
  • Artists offering signed “back to school” notebooks
  • Family bundle packages for “back to school” update cards (Think: “My name is Molly and this is my first day of second grade…”

Make the Most out of an Underrated Shopping Season

Maybe back to school shopping isn’t what it used to be. More universities are online; more elementary school students than ever know what Zoom is. But that doesn’t mean your shop should ignore what might be one of the most underappreciated shopping seasons of the year.

Take these tips and remember to start planning for and treating back-to-school season as what it is: a unique opportunity that only comes around once a year.

Dan Kenitz

Freelance writer based in Wisconsin. Dan's previously written for Grasshopper and GoToMeeting.

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