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Back-to-School: Pandemic Edition

By Jennifer Polk | July 15, 2020 | 0 Comments

MarketingCustomer Acquisition and RetentionDigital Marketing Strategy and ExecutionPersonalization

Back to school supplies

It’s that time of year again–time to send the kiddos back-to-school. Right? Hmm…maybe

In most parts of the U.S. the fourth of July marks the half-way point of summer vacation. It also triggers back-to-school shopping for many families. But this year will likely be a little different. Or, will it? In some respects, the Coronavirus pandemic is ushering in new practices and product needs, like increased demands for child-sized personal protective equipment (PPE). But in other ways it is causing parents to hold to what feels familiar and gives them and their kids a sense of comfort, such as buying school supplies, even when you’re unsure what “school” will look like in the Fall.

Forecasting Sales From Socks to Protractors

One might expect parents to hedge their bets, hold off on purchasing potentially unnecessary supplies until we learn more.

Many families are still waiting for plans to reopen schools, shift to online education or offer a hybrid option. For brands and retailers, this makes sales timing less predictable and sales forecasts more volatile. Many factors, from a resurgence in local cases to a shift in government regulations, could nullify plans to go back-to-school. Yet, the National Retail Federation anticipates record spending among parents of elementary and high school students. On average parents plan to spend $789.49 per family, up 13% from 2019. This comes amid rising U.S. consumer confidence and an 11.1% U.S. unemployment rate as of June.

Personalizing Digital Experiences for Parents

Despite the uncertainty of back-to-school plans, brands and retailers will forge ahead with marketing campaigns to attract parents to their sites, and even their physical stores. And parents will engage for three reasons:

  • Buying back-to-school basics, like calculators, ahead of shortages or delays in shipping or fulfillment
  • Researching  purchases of bigger-ticket items like laptops or masks to adjust to school in a COVID-reality
  • Seeking reassurance for themselves and their kids that some part of our lives remains or can return to normal

Yet, as parents engage, marketers need to deliver a digital experience that demonstrates care and places a premium on safety and convenience.

What does this mean?

Here are two examples of personalizing the digital experience for parents shopping for back-to-school.

  • Personalize the digital experience according to parents’ unique COVID-reality. Retailers like Target and Walmart have historically partnered with schools to share supply lists. It would be challenging to anticipate school reopening plans, but retailers can curate a list of supplies by persona. They can allow shoppers to self-select their persona, whether they’re seeking common supplies, setting up a home school or supporting their student’s online learning. By educating parents on the products they may need in this new reality, marketers can use personalization to help parents prepare for the school year, which in turn helps the brand grow revenue.
  • Personalize the digital experience to support a range of shopping and fulfillment options. This is harder than curating supply lists. Yet, retailers offering curbside pickup or same-day delivery through partnerships with platforms like Instacart and Ship should remind consumers of these capabilities. As retailers have implemented enhanced cleaning protocols and amended their store hours, making shoppers familiar with those changes can manage expectations, avoide confusion and minimize friction.
    • Personalize marketing to target shoppers who have yet to take advantage of omnichannel services like curbside pickup with targeted campaigns promoting back-to-school merchandise and ways to get that merchandise safely, quickly and conveniently.
    • Optimize messaging to new and existing customers to remind them of changes to store hours or safety precautions, including real-time messaging to shoppers with merchandise in their carts or cart abandoners to make them aware of fulfillment options.
    • Partner with third-party platforms like Shipt and Instacart to promote your brands and products, taking into account limiting factors like local inventory levels or limited delivery times to minimize friction from unmet expectations.

These approaches are useful when targeting any audience, at any time. But, back-to-school presents a significant opportunity to use personalization and purposeful way to target, engage and convert shoppers, while also capturing a share of the estimated, increased spend.

Yet, parents shopping for back-to-school, are also in a unique need-state. This group may be making time-compressed purchases, needing to buy merchandise, particularly basics, electronics and PPE before the first day of school, whether online or in person.

They may also be experiencing a range of emotions. Parents face holistic concern for their health and their family’s health and more tactical worries like the availability and safety of bus transportation to and from school. Marketers who can use personalization to identify this group and meet their transactional and emotional needs for tailored help stand to gain revenue and increase brand loyalty.

Gartner clients interested in learning more about technology solutions that support personalization should read the latest version of Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for Personalization Engines, which published on July 14, 2020. 

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