How retailers approached Back To School season this year

Retailers still took advantage of the Back to School marketing season this year despite the uncertainty that remained with schools reopening amid the Covid-19 pandemic. So how exactly did did retailers create desirable in-shopping experiences for these uncertain parents?

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Back to school is usually a one of the largest seasons for retailers however this year the coronavirus outbreak has meant that retailers need to adapt alongside shifting consumer habits as parents prioritise not only practicality but safety.
"Retailers need to be looking at new ways to encourage customers to shop." - Scandit CEO.

Back to school season may not be the biggest sales generator for retailers, but it still registers as an important marketing season on the annual retail calendar.

However, this year the coronavirus pandemic meant retailers needed to adapt. Parents prioritised not only practicality but also safety – especially as there was uncertainty over schools reopening for the first time since lockdown. Retailers also needed to factor in shifting consumer habits. As more parents went online to seek advice on what to purchase to ensure their children remained safe at school retailers needed to capitalise on this drive to online.

“The customer journey has changed for some, not all,” said Daniel Todaro, managing director of marketing agency Gekko.

“It may now more often start online, but retailers can use an omnichannel approach in the ‘considered purchase’ space to drive footfall into store to encourage the right equipment students require.

“The message should be that it’s better to get hand on advice from an expert in-store who will have sold to many students over the years and therefore better understands the need of the consumer.”

While retailers may turn to a multichannel approach to drive footfall, marketing tactics also needed to adapt from its usual tone in order to match the mood of anxious parents.

“Traditionally, retailers’ marketing investments include a mix of TV and radio commercials, print and online ads, flyers and newspaper inserts,” said Sam Holding, head of international at email analytics firm SparkPost.

“While email marketing remains a direct and cost-effective way to approach consumers, and ensure customer loyalty and repeat business.

“But, to be more effective, retailers should adapt and invest in segmentation, analytics and email marketing to get the best results for their brands and improve customer experience.”

“Today the starting point for everything is safety”

The Covid, Commerce and the Consumer research from Wunderman Thompson Commerce revealed that 48 per cent of shoppers were scared of shopping in-store with fears they could contract the virus. This means that retailers had to create a safe and desirable shopping experience in-store for parents and their children if they want to achieve any significant back-to-school sales.

Samuel Mueller, chief executive at mobile computer company Scandit, said retailers needed to turn to technology to help customers feel at ease when coming into stores.

“Back-to-school shopping is set to look vastly different this year, thanks to the coronavirus,” he explained.

“With in-store convenience and safety a larger concern for parents, retailers need to be looking at new ways to encourage customers to shop.

“That means looking for a clean and contactless solution that can ensure customers feel confident walking into a store and allows them to maintain distance from others.

“Contactless retail was already becoming a trend before the pandemic – now it’s the new reality.

“A personal smartphone with the right apps is the contactless tool that minimises human interaction while shoppers self-scan, learn about and buy products.

“And it’s also a safe and user friendly tool for employees to complete everyday tasks through a smartphone app that’s as powerful as a dedicated scanner.”

Mueller added that mobile self-scanning apps allow simplicity and speed, making it possible for shoppers to feel confident walking around stores while being able to socially distance, unlike traditional bespoke scanners which can “pose an obvious hygiene risk”.

Simon Hathaway, EMEA managing director at retail innovation business Outform said: “Concern around in-store safety, coupled with parents worrying about their kids returning to the physical classroom, presents a real challenge to the annual back-to-school ritual.

“No longer are parents solely focused on purchasing blazers, school shoes and lunchboxes; they’re turning to laptops, wearables, remote-learning equipment and other high-tech gadgets, all to support the new schooling environment.

“This shift in purchasing habits, centred around tech purchases, means this year’s back-to-school drive could well leave an indelible mark on the bricks-and-mortar retail experience.

“If the schooling experience is tech-driven and safety-first, then it stands to reason that customers will begin to expect a tech-driven, safety-first experience in-store, too – which is something high street retailers will need to take stock of.”

As education, especially in UK universities, increasingly relies on online teaching, technology products have grown in popularity this academic year.

Deloitte reported that two-fifths of parents said they planned to buy fewer traditional supplies this year, instead choosing to invest in digital resources to supplement their children’s education. Sales growth in electricals is forecast to be 0.7 per cent for the year, according to Retail Economics, with notebooks at the centre of a demand surge on the back of home learning.

Todaro said there is now a large amount of “pent up demand” following the lengthy lockdown and parents were also purchasing items that may be needed if there is another lockdown.

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