Back to School Strategies that Cover All the Bases

Jul 29, 2020
Written by Amanda Noodell

Well, here we are: over halfway through 2020 and facing the most uncertain Back to School season yet. It’s like a never-ending “choose your own adventure” plot with parents, teachers, and marketers on the edge of their seats: Schools Opening: Will They or Won't They? Online Learning: Full-time or Hybrid? Homeschooling: Will You or Won’t You?

They’re tough decisions with no clear answer. It IS clear, however, that the end of summer seasonal peak we’ve come to know and love is shaping up to be real different this year. That’s why we’re here to comb through all the changes and help you come up with a creative Back to School strategy. Let’s start with three things we know for sure:

Anticipated Trends

WHEN people are going to buy will change. With so much in flux, parents are waiting until the last minute to finalize plans, and those with plans are still waiting on supply lists from schools. Uncertainty leads to delayed demand—expect to see a longer shopping season continuing through August and even into September.

WHAT people are buying this year will look different than last year. A lot of parents are gearing up for e-learning and homeschooling and students that are heading back to campus will be facing a vastly changed school environment. This season will shift away from mainstays like backpacks and apparel to high-priced tech items, furniture, and PPE. Many of the products and categories we anticipate for BTS this year reflect those that have been performing well in 2020 so far:

  • Electronics and personal devices: laptops, tablets, printers, speakers, headphones, headsets

  • Home décor and furniture to set-up learning spaces: desks, lamps, organization

  • Education: games, arts and crafts, hobbies, and supplies for hands-on learning

  • Health and wellness: masks, hand sanitizer, vitamins

  • Gifts, beauty, and self care: tokens of appreciation for parents and teachers

HOW people buy will shift. While in-store shopping has been preferred in the past for BTS, more than half of shoppers have reported to prefer shopping online, with demand for curbside pick-up and buy online pick-up in store (BOPIS) expected to increase. And with Prime Day rumored to be moving to October, the door will open for many brands, and possibly even new players, to own a bigger piece of the ecommerce pie this school season.

Given these trends and the different type of school season, here are some additional tips for how you can put your best BTS foot forward:

Massage Your Messaging

With so many potential Back to School scenarios at play, traditional BTS messaging should be adjusted accordingly, especially for categories like apparel. “Hot new styles” and “fall fashion” won’t resonate, but kids still need new clothes—what’s a better approach?

  • Supporting families will be critical. In a Deloitte study, 38% of respondents indicated “high financial concern” regarding the upcoming school season. Position promotional messaging with emphasis on value, savings, and support to help parents get through these times and purchase the supplies they need to set students up for success.
  • Craft messaging for all scenarios. For example, retailers with home decor should continue to push dorm for those heading to campus this season, but mix in messaging about in-home learning spaces and creating a comfortable study environment at home. For a more segmented or personalized approach, geotarget and tweak messaging based on region and available data about schools reopening.
  • Showcase multi-use products. With mainstay categories like backpacks and apparel seeing soft sales, adjust strategy to show multi-use of products for activities like camping, hiking, exercise, or lounging.

Fine-Tune Your Promotions

Retailers have placed heavy emphasis on having a strong promotional strategy throughout 2020 and will continue to do so for BTS to meet price conscious consumers. Traditional Back to School promotions should be assessed and fine tuned to meet current needs.

  • Layer promotions. Combine expected BTS promotions with overall site sales or extend promotions to unexpected categories to encourage shoppers to increase cart size and AOV.
  • Extend offers to parents and educators. Create offers geared towards parents and teachers such as BOGO for kids and parents, or a percentage off for teachers and educational workers.
  • Give a boost to charities. Partner with organizations that give back to kids or support educational issues, or adopt a buy-one, give-one approach by giving essential products to students who lack access.

Pay Attention to Publisher Models

Your BTS messaging and promotions will go much further with the right partners. As always, we recommend evaluating your publisher mix to make sure you’re diversifying and identifying new investment opportunities. Here are a handful of publisher models you may want to consider this season:

  • Best of web publishers like Hip2Save and Brad's Deals share offers alongside content to target parents on the hunt for promotions and sales.
  • Buy Now Pay Later models will be attractive and necessary for many shoppers. Activate relationships with publishers such as Affirm, PayBright, and QuadPay.
  • TM+ publishers give promotions a boost. These publishers help your brand get seen in search as sale savvy BTS shoppers look for the best deal, and can be coupled with geotargeting.
  • Charitable publishers like Giving Assistant and iGive are seeing growth as consumers are more conscious than ever about making charitable donations.
  • Student discount publishers like and StudentBeans target students and teachers by verifying their school ID.


Throughout all of the uncertainty, it’s clear that marketers will need to get creative with their Back to School strategy this year. We hope these tips spark some ideas for a successful BTS season!

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