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How to encourage back-to-school spending

  • Opinion
  • August 8, 2016
  • Francesca Nicasio
How to encourage back-to-school spending

Students in the US won’t be flocking back to campuses until September, but for retailers, it’s high time to ramp up back to school (BTS) marketing campaigns. The good news is, consumers are expected to spend more this year compared to 2015.

To help you capitalize on back to school (aka the second biggest shopping event of the year), we’ve compiled pointers and real life examples of back to school marketing best practices you can use as inspiration.

But first, let’s look at the 2016 numbers surrounding BTS, to give you insights into how people are planning to shop this year.

According to the National Retail Federation, back to school spending from K-12 to college will likely reach $75.8 billion, up from $68 billion last year. This is partly because shoppers aren’t as worried about the economy as they were in previous years.

One other reason is that 2016 is expected to be a “stock up” cycle for back to school consumers. See, according to the NRF’s historical data, back to school spending seems to alternate between “stock up” (i.e. more spending)  and “make do” (i.e. lower spending) cycles every other year.

As CNBC notes, “that pattern has taken shape since 2012, when combined spending on back to school and back to college rose to $83.8 billion from $68.8 billion in 2011. Then, in 2013, the expected spending dropped back down to $72.5 billion, as consumers reused many of the items they bought the previous year. Given last year’s planned contraction of more than 9 percent, it stands to reason that spending on this season would move higher.”

This is great news for retailers because it could mean more foot traffic and sales. Consumers will spend more at discount, department and clothing stores. More and more people plan to shop online as well.

When asked where families plan to shop, the NRF found that discount stores continue to be the top destination for shoppers. This is followed by department and clothing stores.

Ecommerce came in fourth. But it’s important to note that online has seen a dramatic jump, increasing nearly 30% year over year.

Unsurprisingly, most online shoppers plan to take advantage of free shipping and in-store pickup. If you’re selling online (and you totally should), you may want to keep this in mind when mapping out your fulfillment strategy.

The NRF’s survey also found that consumers are planning to shop earlier this year. Seventy-three percent of consumers plan to shop a month or two before school starts.

Needless to say, if you don’t have a back to school plan ready to go, then you should get a move on. To help do that, check out these 7 back to school marketing tips that you can apply to your store.

Boost sales demonstrating how your products fit into people’s school lives.

So you’ve stocked up on trendy and useful back to school merchandise. That’s great, but how are you planning to entice shoppers to buy? If your answer is to simply put your products on a shelf or rack, then you’re not going to stand out from the many merchants doing the same thing.

Instead of just putting products out there, showcase your merchandise so they appeal specifically to back to school shoppers. A good way to do this is to point out how people can use your products in school.

If you’re selling say, pens and notepads, consider setting up a desk in your store and show off those products together with other school supplies. If you’re selling furniture, why not showcase your products in a dorm room setting?

If you can’t build an actual dorm room or desk display in-store, then photograph your products in back to school settings and use the images in your marketing collateral.

Here’s a great example from Staples. To market their “classroom essentials,” Staples went beyond displaying their merchandise as standalone products. Instead, the photographed different items together with school props so customers can see how the products can be used in a classroom setting.

Or check out apparel store Buckle is doing. Rather than just displaying photos of their clothes with generic captions, they’re showcasing back to school outfits to appeal to relevant shoppers.

Apply the same thinking to your back to school campaigns. Figure out how your products fit into people’s school lives, and use that as your marketing angle.

Make your back to school marketing more relevant with the hottest trends.

What are kids (or even parents) crazy about these days? Think about the latest trends or events that your customers care about and incorporate them into your back to school marketing.

One trend that may come to mind is Pokemon Go, which has recently taken both the app world and real world by storm. Many retailers have started riding the Pokemon Go wave to drive sales, and you should certainly look into doing something similar, especially with back to school coming up.

Check out what The School Box is doing. The retailer recently launched a Pokemon Go Back to School series where they show off educational Pokemon-like creatures that they created.

When planning your back to school campaigns, consider incorporating a hot trend to grab people’s attention. Check out Google Trends to see what the latest trending topics, or if you’d like to explore the trends and popularity of specific products, you can use Think with Google’s Shopping Insightstool.

Make campaigns more compelling by getting the kids involved.

Back to school is about kids, so it makes perfect sense to get them involved in whatever it is you’re doing for back to school. This could be as simple as you asking kids and teens what they want to buy for the coming school year, or if you’re serious about involving the kids, why not seek their help in executing your campaigns.

That’s what Target did this year, and the results were tremendous. For its latest back to school effort, the retailer decided to let kids carry out the entire campaign. Children and teens did everything, from writing and directing Target’s ad to creating props and starring in the commercial.

Reach more shoppers by marketing on digital channels.

See to it that your ecommerce game is strong. As we mentioned earlier, shoppers are increasingly using online channels to shop for back to school products. Create a unique banner promoting your back to school campaign. And if you can manage it, set up a back to school section on your website, so you have a dedicated space for all your back to school merchandise.

Expect site traffic to increase this season (and continue to do so til the holidays). If you haven’t done so yet, fix any issues that could be causing your site to slow down. These could include unnecessary plugins, images that aren’t optimized, or too much above-the-fold content.

Do note that back to school shopping won’t just take place in-store and online. Mobile shopping is also on the rise this season. A study from The Rubicon Project found that 60% of parents surveyed are “planning to use mobile devices for some back to school shopping” and “30 percent plan to do at least a quarter of their total shopping on mobile devices.”

Needless to say, you need to ensure that you’re providing a superb mobile shopping experience to your customers. Optimize your website, keep an eye out for shortcomings, and strive to provide a seamless experience across channels.

Generate buzz through giveaways.

Having a giveaway could be an effective way to generate buzz and excitement around back to school. If you have the time and means to do so, consider running a giveaway that you can promote on social media or even in-store.

You can use the contest to gain buzz and PR, or even to capture people’s information (especially if you’re using raffle tickets or online forms).

Perhaps you could put together a pack consisting of your top back to school products and give it away to people who engage with your brand. Get creative. There are plenty of seasonal giveaways going on right now, use them as inspiration for what to do (or what not to do) in your store.

And to further promote your contest, partner up with social media influencers and brands. Find ways to tap into their audience so you can generate excitement, awareness, and ultimately traffic and sales.

Take a look at what Boogie Wipes did. Last year, the company teamed up with other brands and bloggers to offer a huge back to school giveaway. Winners took home a backpack filled with school supplies, gift cards, Boogie Wipes products, and more.

Don’t just push your products, offer something customers could use.

Your campaigns shouldn’t just be about getting people to buy; you should also make it a point to help your customers.

In addition to showcasing your products, find ways to become a helpful resource for back to school consumers. A simple way to do this is to put together back to school tips. Perhaps you can offer a campus survival guide to students. If you’re trying to reach moms, you could offer advice to help them get their kids ready for school faster.

One merchant doing a great job at his is ALDI. The food market has a back to school section on its website that features recipes to help moms save time on busy weekday mornings.

Besides tips and information, you could also provide tools. Why not provide calendars, planners, or templates that people can use in school or at home? Offer them as incentives to add value to each sale, or use them as giveaways.

Don’t sell back to school products? Use “change” as a marketing theme.

Just because you’re not selling traditional BTS products like school supplies, doesn’t mean you can’t use run BTS campaigns.

As retail expert Bob Phibbs says, back to school “is a transition time that brings a harbinger of change. It’s a time of new beginnings, changes in the weather and changes in the way we see ourselves.”

Bob notes that retailers who aren’t selling back to school products can piggyback on this theme by figuring out what this season of change means for their customers. He gives some excellent examples of how stores can use back to school to their advantage.

Consider the following:

Back to school time for a music store means… time for anyone to learn a new instrument.
Back to school time for a home improvement center means… time to fix up that forgotten spare room.

Francesca Nicasio is a retail expert and blogger for Vend, an iPad-based point-of-sale software that helps merchants manage and grow their business.

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