Back to School Marketing 2020: Retail Recovery Tips

How do you optimize your marketing and communication in the wake of a pandemic? 

Nikole Wintermeier | Jun 30, 2020

back to school marketing
You’ve shelved your summer lines for next year. Your store closures have redistributed your 2020 budget plans. Your margins are on thin ice. Your supply chain is disrupted. Yikes - you may even have excess seasonal inventory. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit retail hard. But before you think this is another article about how bad your situation is - think again.

Following our post about COVID-19 from the insights of 10+ retailers, I want to continue paving the way for your retail recovery. 

So what’s the good news?

The good news is that your physical stores are opening up (or have already opened). Your consumers are excited to go shopping again, although the “new normal” will change the traditional brick-and-mortar experience.

So when prepping your retail campaigns for a post-pandemic world, what are some things to keep in mind?

Unlike your 2019 back to school campaign, marketing to this segment in 2020 will look a lot different. 

Despite this, however, back to school retail 2020 presents a golden opportunity. Which is why it’s important to inject a little energy into your back to school campaigns. 

First, you have to understand the post-pandemic retail climate in terms of:

  1. Consumer spending
  2. Product-demand
  3. eCommerce-first

Second, you can create strategies to engage with the post-COVID-19 consumer, and therein optimize your back to school marketing for 2020.

So with each post-pandemic retail trend, this article provides unique retail recovery tips. Many of these tips you can already carry into your next campaigns.

Starting with a successful back to school retail season, you’ll be able to get quickly back on your feet. 


Retail Recovery Tips for Back to School Marketing in 2020

Consumer spending has decreased

back to school marketing 2020

Last year, back to school spending reached a record high of $26.2bn in the U.S. By January of this year, I bet you were excitedly preparing your back to school campaigns for 2020. 

And then bang! A global pandemic hit. 

Months after lockdown and your stores are finally reopening. But COVID-19 has changed the face of consumer spending, meaning your 2020 priorities have no doubt shifted. 

back to school marketing 2020 global pandemic

Moreover, According to McKinsey, net consumer optimism has decreased globally. In other words, your customers aren’t optimistic that their spending habits will go back to pre-pandemic levels. In fact, 64% of Americans say their shopping habits have changed.

And more than half of consumers in most countries believe their finances will be impacted for four months or more. 

With unemployment at an all-time high in the U.S. and unstable economic situations around the world, it’s fair to say that your back to school shoppers won’t be the same big-spenders as last year. 

So how do you market back to school campaigns to the pessimistic consumer?


Retail Recovery Tip #1: Boost the categories your consumers are spending on


Despite the decrease in consumer spending, shopping for essentials has seen a boost. These “new essential” categories include things like office supplies, health and fitness, home improvement, housewares, toys, and hobbies, which make up nearly 40% of sales among consumers. 

back to school marketing 2020 klaviyo

See Klaviyo for more spending trends and filter by product category. 


For back to school 2020, the focus will be on categories like:

  • Remote learning tools 
  • Electronics (already seeing a surge in purchases to facilitate remote learning) 
  • Health & hygiene 
  • Comfortable apparel (fashion gimmicks like elasticized trousers are also seeing a comeback)
  • Toys/home entertainment for kids 

As a brand, you should look to expand these categories or boost the categories your customers are already spending on. We’ll talk about product-demand later on, but if you do expand into new service verticals, you should always do it in a way that stays true to your brand. 

back to school marketing 2020 COS

Take COS, who now has a Books & Toys category, although traditionally an apparel retailer. This shows they are engaging with their target customer while expanding into new, post-pandemic categories to stay relevant.  


Retail Recovery Tip #2: Provide discounts, offers, and value for money

back to school marketing 2020 mac

One obvious way to help your customers during a time of both economic uncertainty and willingness to spend is to provide cheaper options for buying your products.  

For example, Mac’s back to college deal provides free AirPods to students who buy a Mac or iPad. Of course, Apple products aren’t for deal-hungry shoppers to begin with. But this cleverly appeals to the post-pandemic back to school shoppers, who are anyway looking for that extra incentive to continue spending. 

Providing good value for money is a sure-fire way to stay relevant to your target customers during COVID-19. 

back to school marketing smiggle

Take Smiggle’s back to school bundles. These are a great way parents can get everything they want in one place and at a discounted option. This is especially appealing to people who are unused to shopping online but forced too due to social distancing and lockdown. 

back to school marketing walmart

Walmart Canada’s whole back to school proposition is based on their low prices. And while discounts and offers are indeed a good way to market to your post-pandemic consumers, be careful of slashing prices dramatically. 

This comes across as desperate and can easily alienate your customers. Instead, focus on steady discounting and delighting your customers with special deals, bundles, and value for money. 


Product-demand has shifted from traditional “back to school” apparel


Let’s talk about what products your back to school shoppers want. Across the board, clothing and accessories sales have slumped 63% from 2019, making it the retail category that took the most hit during the pandemic. 

But while consumers may have stopped buying school uniforms, or capitalizing on traditional back to school trends, they’re still in the market for new products. These consumers are your parents, students, and teachers. And they’re still looking to shop, especially after months of lockdown.

So if you can’t sell your traditional back to school offers, how does your brand stay relevant during this retail season?

Retail Recovery Tip #3: Be innovative with your product-offering


Now’s your chance to disrupt the traditional back to school offers and think of new ways to engage your customers. 
back to school marketing 2020

For example, Marks & Spencer’s recently introduced “antibacterial moisture” lining on select products. Granted, without health and hygiene trending, this would be a little weird. 

But what this shows is that M&S is engaging with current trends and providing solutions to help their customers overcome some of their COVID-19 concerns - without referring to the typical face-mask and hand sanitizer product category.  

M&S takes this idea to their back to school segment, with their “freshfeet” technology designed for kids trainers.


  back to school marketing M&S


This puts M&S in a unique position of capitalizing on the emerging health and hygiene trend for their back to school segment. 

Similarly, Grays school released a home school product line;

back to school marketing 2020 grays

Providing products that cater to at-home education is a good idea. This is a trend that will stay, as schools adopt staggered learning and hybrid models

The bottom line?

  • Engage with the COVID-19 climate in your communication and product-offering
  • Provide products that relieve a pain point, or cater to new, emerging trends. 

Doing both these things will help you stay relevant when parents, teachers, and students are looking for a brand to carry out their back to school 2020 shopping. 

“Entertainment during the day will be your main driver of sales, especially if kids are home-schooling. Things like Google game apps, iPads, TV, Netflix, and Nintendo have seen a spike in usage.” - Rodger Buyvoets, CEO at Crobox  


Retail Recovery Tip #4: Test your new products on your loyal customer base

back to school marketing 2020


But there’s a caveat: if you do want to extend your product category, you should first test to see if this works with your active shoppers. 

Selfridges, for example, recently partnered with Kidswear Collective to sell second-hand designer clothing and accessories. Not only is this a good way to provide discounts and be sustainable, but Selfridges is testing these products first in their pop-up store. 

A pop-up can also regulate foot traffic and keep social distancing measures in check. Plus, it’s a good way to provide the brick-and-mortar experience to shoppers who miss it, without having to fully invest in reopening. 

And speaking of store closures...


More people are shopping online/digitally than ever before 


While 25,000 stores are predicted to close in 2020, eCommerce is seeing growth; from January to March 2020 eCommerce traffic rose by 6% (actually, there’s been a 6-13% increase in eCommerce penetration compared to pre-pandemic times). 

back to school marketing 2020

More than this, 24% of consumers say they don’t feel comfortable shopping in a mall. This means that shopping online doesn’t only represent a comfortable alternative, but an emotional necessity. 

More non-digital-first customers are coming online, not only to buy products, but to browse, search, and get information. The online experience will have to replace the mall experience, and the only way to cater to this is by investing in eCommerce optimization, personalization, social media, and digital tools.


[apartment therapy gif, experiential retail]

Experiential retail has taken off during the pandemic. 


For your back to school segment, this means tracking which platforms your consumers are engaging with, social listening, customer segmentation, tracking behavioral data, and being the customer-centric brand that provides the right products and information at the right time.  


Retail Recovery Tip #5: Optimize your social media campaigns 


Every country has a different reopening strategy. Making back to school campaigns so market-specific it's hard to suggest the perfect social media strategy that will work for every brand. 

In the U.S, 86% of students who use Snapchat plan to buy school supplies despite COVID-19 uncertainty. Snapchat itself provides many opportunities for back to school marketing like geofilters, stories, polls, and influencer marketing. 

back to school marketing 2020 snapchat

On the other hand, in the UK, France, and Germany, TikTok usage has increased at least 50% since the start of the pandemic. 




Macy’s All Brand New back to school commercial, 2019


In 2019, Macy’s used a TikTok challenge to promote their back to school lines and products. Gen Z is the generation most hit by schools closing. It’s also the target audience who are using TikTok to emotionally navigate the pandemic. 

If you can be the brand that capitalizes on this platform for those relevant markets, you’ll come across as engaging and relevant, especially during back to school season.

Another great way to create hype online is to let your customers speak for themselves through user-generated content, which will also leverage Social Proof. For example, Manutan Collectivites asked their customers to draw their ideal class, and then vote for the best drawing during back to school 2019. 

back to school marketing retail 2020 post pandemic

User-generated content like this can quickly become viral if done right, but don’t forget to give it a COVID-19 spin. For example, asking students to draw their ideal home classrooms. 

“Once COVID-19 disappears, schools will still operate on this hybrid learning model of school and home. This is a trend that is here to stay, and retail should already look in order to be relevant with products and campaigns when that time comes.” - Rodger Buyvoets, CEO at Crobox


back to school marketing

Nudie Jeans COVID-19 awareness email. 

While social media is an important channel to keep alive, email has also seen a surge in traffic during the pandemic. Again, this retail recovery tip will differ per country, market, segment, and customer so use GA, Google Trends, and Google Alerts to keep your finger on the pulse! 

The main takeaway?

Your post-pandemic campaigns will see success in different channels than what you’re used to.  It’s an unprecedented time, which means certain channels will deliver and others will not. Be prepared for this by setting aside an experimental budget to test what works and what doesn’t before rolling out. 

Pandemic or not, these tips are key to driving retail growth: 

  • Testing, testing, testing
  • Being flexible to change
  • Adopting a digital-first mindset 


Retail Recovery Tip #6: Invest in your eCommerce platform 


In June 2020 in the UK, 20% of consumers completed between 76% to100% of their purchases online. 

These new buying behaviors will continue to evolve. Phygital retail, experiential retail, AI, and VR - all of these trends are showing how closely interlinked eCommerce and brick-and-mortar will become in the future!

back to school marketing dr martens

Dr. Martens’ “for school” product badges draw attention to their back to school line while allowing filtering options to direct the shopper and streamline the on-site customer journey.

Investing in your eCommerce platform means paving the way for a brick-and-mortar-like experience, and cross-promoting your products in both these areas. 


Your on-site platform for back to school marketing should also target geographically. Make sure you enable automatic item updates with Google so that your product data is up to date when it comes to price and availability per location.

back to school marketing

 Nike extended return deadlines to 60 days in the wake of COVID-19. 

Furthermore, I recommend a couple of quick wins on-site that will appeal to your back to school shoppers post-pandemic like:

  • Extending return deadlines (see: Nike)
  • Including detailed, fluent product descriptions (leverage images, videos, VR, and anything that helps provide a physical store experience to people who have to stay home, or hesitant to shop in brick-and-mortar) 
  • Making your site mobile-friendly (especially during back to school!)
  • Providing COVID-19 instructions on-site (see Jansport, below)

back to school marketing jansport




Back to school retail 2020 will look a whole lot different from last year. But who’s to say you can’t use some of the same strategies?

As long as you understand that:

  • The post-pandemic consumer is fickle in their spending habits, but ready to invest in the right products for back to school 
  • Product-demand has shifted from traditional back to school clothing and accessories 
  • Your consumers are mostly shopping online and on social media 

With these in mind, you can start preparing your retail recovery, not just for back to school season but for a post-pandemic retail world and beyond. 


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