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back to school shopping trends

Back-to-School Shopping Trends: Top Insights for 2021 

Written by
Zlata Faerman

Like most things post-pandemic, back-to-school shopping looks a little different than it has in years past. As school children and college students around the country make their way back to in-person learning this fall, what back-to-school shopping trends should retailers expect to see? 

According to the NRF’s 2021 Back-to-School report, consumer spending is expected to reach an all-time high, with families of K-12 students spending some $848.90 — up $59 from last year. Total sales are predicted to reach over $37B this year, the highest K-12 estimate on record. 

College students and their families are spending even more, $1,200.32 on average, with back-to-college spending expected to reach $71B, up from $67.7B in 2020. 

So, with all that spending going on, we took a deep dive into marketplace trends, read the latest research, and have some expert predictions of our own. Here are our top three takeaways. 

Top Insights for 2021 Back to School Shopping Trends

1. Shoppers Are Ready to Spend

After a year of unpredictability and intermittent stay-at-home orders, parents of K-12 and college students are ready to make up for lost time. While spending is likely to be higher for families across the board compared to last year, when learning was still modified and circumstances still uncertain, electronics and clothing will see the biggest increases. 

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), total back-to-school spending 2021 will reach $37.1B, up from $33.9B in 2020. School supplies sit atop that list, and one survey suggests those parents shopping on a mobile device will spend more money on supplies than those shopping in person, indicating that mobile and social media advertising will likely see very healthy ROI this back-to-school season. 

2. Consumers Expect Seamless Experiences

Online shopping on social media is becoming increasingly popular, but with in-person learning coming back and vaccines reducing risk and encouraging more, brick-and-mortar shopping will still be a primary avenue for purchase — making multi-channel brand experiences matter more than ever. Instagram launched its own in-app purchasing feature earlier this year, and YouTube is currently piloting livestream purchasing with select creators, signaling that social media platforms recognize the trend as well. 

To this end, brands should connect their user experiences across e-commerce, social media and in-person shopping. A connected experience isn’t just about a user-friendly interface. It’s things like a frictionless checkout experience, where users can freely interact with an ad on social media, make a purchase, and continue their media experience. It’s creating an easy app or loyalty integration for in-store purchases, where shoppers can easily apply points or earn rewards in any shopping environment. Another example would be geofencing or other location-based services for marketing, serving up the perfect ad at literally the perfect time.  

3. Big Retail Has High Hopes

Between not having bought typical supplies last year and maybe a few extra bucks from the government stimulus package, many consumers are happily returning to their pre-pandemic shopping habits, and big retailers have equally big expectations for the fall semester rush. With new same-day purchase options like Target’s popular Drive-up service, which grew 123% in the first quarter of this year, retailers hope to capture even more market share, reaching both in-store and online shoppers with equally positive brand experiences. Target and Walmart each saw better-than-expected earnings earlier this summer, with both experiencing higher in-store traffic. And both retailers joined a bevy of others who launched early promotions this June, testing the waters for the busy back-to-school season. Amazon Prime Day, Walmart Deals For Days, Target Deal Days and Kohl’s Wow Deals were all scheduled for late June, giving retailers a sneak peek at consumer’s shopping appetites.  

What Do Spending Habits Mean for Brands and Retailers?  

Overall, the news is encouraging for brands and retailers this back-to-school shopping season. According to Deloitte, the pandemic accelerated the push to get digital resources integrated into schools. While many school districts around the countries work out the kinks of integration, retailers will be ready for the rush, with sales of technology products projected to grow 37% year-over-year. 

Looking back at our key insights, consumer experience will be a huge component of this year’s back-to-school shopping season and retailers will be wise to include it as part of their branding strategies. Creative campaigns that reach shoppers both online and in-store are ideal hooks for inciting engagement, but conversion will be equally important, and in many cases will hinge on the quality of the overall experience. 

Performance Branding for Back-to-School and Every Season

Need help connecting your in-store and online experiences? Performance Branding can help you reach your desired audiences with the right kind of experiences. To unlock the full value of your back-to-school marketing with smart bidding strategies and unbeatable creative content, let’s talk.  

Featured image by Stanley Morales on Pexels.

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Written by
Zlata Faerman

Zlata is a full-time publicist, part-time writer, and round-the-clock ambassador to wit and humor. As a publicist for over 15 years, she helps launch products with creative ideas and garner press coverage that drives reputation and sales. She also contributes to a variety of lifestyle publications in the areas of food, parenting, health, beauty, marketing, travel, and home. When she’s not crafting kitchen concoctions for her food blog @lifeandthymez, Zlata can be found spending time with her family, having #zlatathoughts, and fantasizing about being a Real Housewife of New Jersey.


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