Whether at elementary school, college, or somewhere between, uncertainty is abound with exactly how the upcoming 2020-2021 academic year will take shape for both students and parents. Lots of factors are currently in play that will ultimately determine the path forward, of course. Many of them are both ever-changing and out of our control.

One thing is certain: the 2020 back-to-school (BTS) shopping season, now at our doorstep, is unlike any other that consumers have seen in their lifetimes.

Of more than 6,700 U.S. consumers surveyed by Shopkick who plan to make school-related purchases this BTS season, 63% of respondents say they are thinking differently about upcoming spending due to COVID-19. A vast majority of shoppers (83%) plan to make BTS purchases to protect their children and students returning to school, including PPE and related hygiene products to help stave off the virus, per the study.

The BTS Spending Landscape

According to the latest eMarketer projections for the 2020 BTS shopping season, retail numbers overall will take a substantial hit (down 16.6% to $789.05 billion) over the 2019 season.1

In Saleforce’s May 2020 “Snapshot Research Series: Wave 2” report (see chart below), only 12% of shoppers surveyed say they plan to increase their BTS spend this year. About one-fifth of shoppers will decrease their spend, and to no surprise, a plurality of shoppers (41%) are unsure about what they’ll spend.

“[Since] spending is often correlated to overall economic strength, when we have a strong economy people will spend more on computers and those kinds of items [as well as] apparel,” said Rod Sides, vice chairman and leader of Deloitte’s U.S. Retail Practices, in a recent Footwear News article about BTS retail. “Given the [current] struggles — unemployment, the [economy] in the second quarter, and the fact it will be a sporadic move back to opening [the country], we’d expect [back-to-school sales] to be lighter.”

Fortunately, despite the perfect storm created by the pandemic, there is opportunity for BTS retailers that sell through online and mobile channels. Per the aforementioned eMarketer projections, ecommerce BTS sales ( i.e., products or services ordered using the internet) will rise 17.9% over last year’s season, to $121.10 billion. This buying method is projected to represent 15.3% of all BTS sales this year; a number that is up significantly from last year’s season (10.9%) and previous years.

Mobile commerce, as a subset of retail ecommerce (i.e., purchases made via mobile devices), is projected to rise this year as well. Overall, mobile commerce is expected to hit $314.08 billion this year — a huge uptick of 25.8% over 2019’s numbers.2

Going back to the Shopkick survey, the majority of respondents plan to get a head start on shopping: 53% plan to shop one month prior to the first day of school, 22% plan for two months prior, and 17% plan for one week prior. Not surprisingly, with tighter budgets due to the economic downturn, 80% of respondents say getting the best price is their top priority.

BTS Lessons for Mobile Marketers

According to a study by Liftoff and Adjust published in late June, mobile shopping app engagement in the spring of 2020 surged 40% YoY as COVID-19 led consumers to use their mobile devices to shop. The engagement rate for shopping apps reached almost 15%, compared with 10.5% in 2019. This engagement will likely carry through into the BTS season, and beyond.

Also to consider: National Retail Federation President and CEO Matthew Shay noted last year that Gen Z kids (i.e., those born between 1995 and 2015) are clearly becoming more involved with back-to-school purchasing decisions rather than leaving the choices up to mom and dad.

“Marketers will be looking much more closely at regional messaging across all channels to ensure that brands and retailers meet families where they are and remain relevant to their specific circumstances,” noted Ryan Wuerch, CEO and founder of Dosh (a cashback app) in a Retail Dive article posted in late June.

“Comms planning will become much more nuanced and need to be far more nimble than previous years as COVID-19 cases peak and trough in various locations, and will be important to lessen foot traffic and redirect sales to online as needed,” continued Wuerch. “Every city and town across America will have a different experience when it comes to kids returning to the classroom.”

Want to learn more about fine-tuning your mobile advertising strategy for BTS seasonal shoppers during uncertain times? Shoot us an email at info@taptica.com.

1US Retail & Ecommerce Back-to-School Season Sales, May 2020 (eMarketer)
2US Retail Mcommerce Sales, May 2020 (eMarketer)