Back to School (and the Office) in a Slightly Back to “Normal” World

Aug 2, 2021
Written by CJ

The sun is shining, birds are chirping, parents are rejoicing: Back to School is happening this year and it’s in person! After more than a year of uncertainty with lockdowns, remote learning, and social distancing most schools are going back to in-person learning. And with some workplaces reopening, many adults will be heading back to the office soon as well.

With most parts of the US starting to reopen, this season should bring demand for traditional school supplies as well as items for those going back to in-person work. Back to School (BTS) has always been a key shopping period for a range of retailers and this year is no different. We’ve gathered our industry predictions and insights for both advertisers and publishers to help put together a successful game plan.


Timing is Key

This BTS shopping season is expected to begin in late July and end by late September, with various shopper segments making their purchases at different times based on when the schools or universities reopen.

  • Late July and early August are when bargain hunters kick off their spending with big-box retail stores starting to market BTS items. July also happens to be peak travel booking for both summer and Labor Day holiday getaways.
  • The first weekend in August aligns with tax-free weekend in many states, whereas the end of August drives demand for college-bound student needs. Procrastinators breathe a sigh of relief for Labor Day sales as retailers begin clearing out their BTS merchandise to make room for seasonal items.

Economic insecurity is still a concern, but consumers won’t sacrifice quality over quantity. They’ll leverage multiple media sources such as articles, review sites, blogs, social media, and shopping apps to find the best options.

Department store sales are expected to rebound in 2021 as more consumers begin to shop in person again. Buy online/pick up in-store and curbside shopping options will remain important as consumers continue to enjoy the multiple benefits of low-contact experiences, or shopping for introverts.


Strategies for Publishers

This year’s shopping list will include a combination of traditional supplies and apparel, as well as digital supplies and PPE like we saw during 2020’s BTS season. Experts are also predicting that tight supply and shipment delays will have an impact on retailers’ inventory levels, so consider linking to a few different retailer options since items are likely to sell out. Effective strategies for 2021 will include anticipating each shopper segment’s needs from the following retail categories:

Kid’s Apparel: Students returning to the classroom will have grown a few sizes in the time they’ve been absent. Highlighting value and discounts for family brands will attract bargain hunters who may now be outfitting the whole family.

Adult Apparel: Back to School this year is also coinciding with “Back to Work” as some companies start to send employees back to the office in one form or another. With remote employees living in casual wear for over a year, wardrobe refreshes are top of mind. Maximize the reach of apparel forward promotions by including business casual apparel brands, and don’t forget those who are continuing to stay WFH and continue to promote top athleisure brands.

Traditional and Digital Supplies: Last year’s BTS season saw customer behavior shift overwhelmingly toward digital supplies that would support at-home learning such as laptops, tablets, headphones, desks, printers, and more. This year may have some of that demand, but traditional in-person learning school supplies like notebooks, art supplies, stationery, backpacks, and water bottles will make up the bulk of purchases.

PPE: Masks, hand sanitizer, and antibacterial wipes should still make the shopping list as the US is not virus-free quite yet, and mask mandates vary by state, school, and establishment.

Travel: As the world returns to some semblance of before-times and homebody fatigue lingers, travel continues to boom. Take advantage of one of the last travel events of the year by promoting Labor Day sales and promotions with travel advertisers. 2020 travel trends paved the way for more people to choose vacation rentals over traditional hotels for a safe retreat. Families and large travel groups will continue this trend as they look to get in one last (or first in a while) trip before the school year begins.


Advertiser Game Plan

Take advantage of the influx of shopping intent and high traffic volume that lends to BTS and promote with a variety of publishers. Since each publisher model lends itself to a unique audience, consider promotions with:

  • Back to School shopping guides from media publishers like Ziff Media Group and best of web deal publishers like Brad's Deals appeal to consumers seeking information and validation around key product purchases for the season.
  • Buy Now, Pay Later services will be used by more than one-fifth of digital buyers in the US in 2021. Activate relationships with publishers such as Affirm, PayBright, Klarna, QuadPay, and Afterpay. Messaging Buy Now, Pay Later options will resonate for those high-value purchases such as furnishing dorms or first apartments.
  • Cause-Related and Charitable Giving publishers like Giving Assistant and iGive appeal to consumers who are actively looking to make purchases that align with their personal values. Publisher Upworthy (GOOD Worldwide Inc) is running a Back-to-School campaign to raise awareness and support donations for school supplies.
  • Influencer partnerships enable promotions to have an even larger reach, tapping into individual influencer’s social media and follower audiences. Leverage CJ’s VIP Influencer campaigns to connect with a wide array of parents and office-bound consumers to increase brand consideration from the start of the customer journey with content that covers multiple touchpoints.
  • Loyalty and Coupon publishers are hosting Back to School-themed pages and emails, as well as extra cashback or rewards events that would provide additional incentive and exposure opportunities. Secure placements with Rakuten, Mr. Rebates, Swagbucks, RetailMeNot, TopCashback, CouponCabin, CouponFollow, Ibotta, and more to reach consumers who will be influenced by the best prices and sales.


With a slight return to normalcy and learnings from 2020’s Back to School season, both advertisers and publishers alike will have plenty of marketing opportunities to formulate a successful strategy.

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