Back-To-School Shopping: Tools and Trends Retailers Can Use to Cash In

Back to school 2018 | Shopify Retail blog

Are you ready for the other most wonderful time of the year? For retailers, back to school is the second-busiest season, only to be outdone by Black Friday-Cyber Monday and holiday shopping. As parents across North America get their children ready for a new school year, online and brick-and-mortar stores are working on their back-to-school marketing — and getting ready to cash in.

It’s not just big-box retailers that are enjoying the payoff from this uptick in foot traffic: Back-to-school season presents a wonderful opportunity for indie retailers to appeal to a wide spectrum of needs, from school supplies and accessories to fashion items and apparel.

Spotlight On Today’s Back-To-School Season

Before getting your displays and marketing strategies on lock, make sure you know the lay of the land (i.e. how and what your target audience is buying).

Here are some stats provided by the National Retail Federation and its “Back-to-School/Back-to-College Survey,” conducted by the NRF and Prosper Insights & Analytics.

  • Back-to-school spending in the U.S. is second only to Black Friday Cyber Monday: Back-to-school and college spending is projected to reach $82.8B this year (nearly as high as 2017’s $83.6B, and up from $75.8B in 2016).
  • The opportunity is growing: The NRF also found that total back-to-school spending has grown 55% over the past 10 years.
  • College students are becoming a more important target to focus on: Parents of teens heading to college, as well as college and graduate students purchasing for themselves, plan to spend an average $942.17 each, for a total of $55.3B. That’s an all-time high in the history of the survey, up from last year’s previous record of $54.1B. NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said, “College spending is expected to be at its highest level ever, and back-to-school will be one of the three highest years on record.” College students are predicted to spend an average of $109.29 on items like dorm and apartment furnishings.
  • Apparel is a key product category to focus on for back to schoolers: According to the survey, back-to-school shoppers heading to elementary and high school plan to spend the most on clothing ($236.90). “The biggest change we are seeing in back-to-school spending this year is coming from electronics,” NRF Vice President for Research Mark Mathews said. “Items like laptops, tablets and smartphones are now an everyday part of household life and aren’t necessarily a purchase parents save for the start of the school year, resulting in the slight decrease in spending for this category.”

    TAKEAWAY: Since the NRF study found that many households already have electronics as part of their everyday life, it means that there’s budget to spend on other items like apparel, backpacks and school supplies. This is not the case for college kids, whose highest priority is shopping for electronics like laptops and gaming consoles.

  • The early bird gets the (revenue) worm: Most back-to-school shoppers (77%) plan to start at least three weeks before school begins, up from last year’s 74% and 64% a decade ago.

Back to school statistics, National Retail Federation | Shopify Retail blog
Back to school statistics, National Retail Federation | Shopify Retail blog

Images: National Retail Federation

With back-to-school marketing in session, let’s take a look at some of the tactics and trends that will help you succeed.

4 Tips To Ace The Back-to-School Season

1. Leverage Social Media

We know, we know: Promoting your back-to-school offerings on social media is not a novel idea. But knowing how to optimize your social media channels is the key to success.

According to this Inc. article, “Forget Millennial Purchasing Power. Gen Z Is Where It's At,” brands need to focus on the influence and buying power of Generation Z (people born from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s). This generation lives out loud and does it on social media, so there’s a huge opportunity for retailers selling apparel to engage with this highly social generation. (Here’s a stat for you: 93% of today's parents say their children influence spending!)

TAKEAWAY: Retailers need to be active online and on mobile, in addition to in-store marketing activities.

So, where do you begin on social media?

Focus on showcasing the top products you carry for back-to-school shoppers, as well as any promotions you might be running. To get the biggest “bang for your buck,” or a real return on investment (ROI) on your social media activities, consider which platforms your target audience visits.

According to SproutSocial, while Facebook might not have the same new and young feeling as Instagram or Snapchat, 79% of internet users still log into Facebook.

Equipped with this information, retailers are presented with a large opportunity to invest in Facebook Ads, as Facebook offers a highly targeted ad network where you can run a Facebook ad campaign according to the demographic you’re after (and your budget).

The other key factor to consider is the surge in millennial moms as an influential demographic. According to the Digiday article, “The mother of all generations: 5 things brands should know about millennial moms,” millennial moms account for almost 90% of the 1.5 million new mothers within 2015, up 50% from a decade ago. This is staggering!

That said, running a targeted Facebook and/or Instagram ad campaign can help you reach this audience.

Another key social media trend is the surge in popularity of Instagram, especially Instagram Stories. According to the Pew Research Center’s study of Social Media Use in 2018, 71% of 18- to 24-year-olds use Instagram. (Also for your consideration: 78% of 18- to 24-year-olds still use Snapchat).

With the more recent release of Instagram TV (IGTV), you can now post videos that are longer than 60 seconds, opening up a whole opportunity for YouTube-style videos right there for your Instagram followers to see. You can also hire an influencer to create these videos as sponsored content (more on this in a bit).

PRO TIP: To combat Instagram’s algorithm change, which decreases the number of followers your posts actually reach, use Instagram Stories and IGTV to grab your audience’s attention. (These show up on top of your “Instagram Grid,” and are more likely to be seen.)

For a more dynamic, real-time approach, you can also get in on the Facebook Live action or post Instagram Stories by hosting a mini “back-to-school section tour,” showcasing the top product trends and new arrivals you carry for the back-to-school season.

Speaking of the trends... 

2. Know the Trends, And Make Sure They’re Available

It goes without saying that carrying the season’s most buzzed-about products is an integral part of being relevant to your target audience. So, let’s dive into some of 2018’s biggest trends.

Jack & Jill, for example, is an independent retailer based in Montreal that’s known for stocking items with buzz. We spoke with Jack & Jill owner Barbara Vininsky about some of the top back-to-school trends for 2018. Here’s what will be ruling the schoolyard this year, so if you’ve got ‘em, flaunt ‘em: Post pictures of these items on social media, spotlight them, and promote them front-and-center in your back-to-school visual presentation.

The point here is to attract customers by spotlighting the trends: once you’ve got them in store, you can surprise and delight them with more of your goods.

Score With Athletics

Reverse Weave, for one and all. #ChampionUSA (tap to shop)

A post shared by Champion (@champion) on

Athleisure is more of a movement than a trend: from sports-inspired items to sporty looks taking over as “the new normal” in everyday wear, athletics is covering all the right bases.

This is relevant to back to school for several reasons: 

Backpack Trends

For the younger ladies, sequin backpacks are still making their mark and not simply with sequins: this year’s popular backpacks feature a mix of fabrics, with highly tactile fabrics like sequins, velour, and high-shine metallics.

Pens, Pencils, Highlighters, and Stationery

Back to school stationary, | Shopify Retail blog


Despite this digital (and increasingly paperless) era, stationery items have been experiencing a major comeback for the past few years. There’s something personal and nostalgic about paper supplies and stationery, and retailers have taken note. Wondering which shapes and animals are trending this year? It’s all about sloths, llamas, narwhals, and unicorns (those aren’t going anywhere), as well as avocados in the food department.

From agendas with retro-style stickers to highlighters and cheeky erasers, items that can elevate any space are making their mark.

Speaking of “elevating your space:” locker decor is also on the must-have list. Students can add swag to their lockers with self-adhesive mirrors, and magnetic notepads.

PRO TIP: Lower-price point desk accessories make for excellent impulse buys, so be sure to display them next to your cash counter.

Fancy Water Bottles

Back to school, S'well water bottles | Shopify Retail blog

Image: S'well

Even water bottles have received a splashy upgrade. Retailers are selling “design-ey” bottles like the ubiquitous brand S’well, which now offers a smaller 9oz size to add to its line of popular water bottles. They’re cute and prevent us from stocking up on plastic water bottles. (Win-win.)

Dorm Room Trends

We spoke with Shannen Olan, Social Media and Brand Marketing at Dormify, a one-stop online shop for anyone looking to amp up their dorm room decor, about the current trends in dorm rooms. The two key trends are:

1. Multifunctional pieces: “In small spaces like dorms, it's so important that the bigger and bulkier items you choose to bring into the space serve more than one purpose. For example, our powered headboards that are stylish and functional as they have a built-in outlet that makes for easy phone charging. Customers are also loving our double collapsible storage ottoman.”

Back to school, dorm accessories | Shopify Retail blog

Image: Dormify
2. Marble: “The marble trend is here to stay this year in dorm furnishings. It's a great alternative to a neutral, but has an extra sophisticated edge to it. We brought this trend to life this year in throw blankets, pillows, and prints.”

    Back to school, dorm accessories | Shopify Retail blog

    Image: Dormify

    Shoutout: Personal Care and Grooming Items

    Personal grooming seems to be a category that brands are paying more attention to, especially when targeting the college set. For example, even everyday items like shower caps are now available in stylish designs: just take a look at the brand Shhhowercap. Even basic bathrobes and bathmats have received the trendy treatment across the board, with prints like donuts and flamingos.

    PRO TIP: If you don’t sell personal care items in your shop, an item like a shower cap is an easy item to add to your product assortment.

    3. Run Promotions or a Contest

    Appeal to the more budget-conscious, comparison shoppers with special promotions during back-to-school season. Your goal is to attract as much attention as possible while other retailers are also competing for a piece of the pie, so consider bundling promos like BOGO deals, gift-with-purchase offers, “free shipping” if you’re an online retailer, or host a contest.

    You can even integrate social media into your giveaway. Prompt customers to post an item from your shop on Instagram with a hashtag like #schoolisinsession, to get 15% off their total purchase. This is a fun way to offer a promotion while you benefit from some viral action on social media — a win-win for all.

    FURTHER READING: Learn how to create online contests and giveaways that convert.

    4. Partner With Influencers

    Harness the influence and reach of local bloggers to help promote your back-to-school items. Even if you only find two or three bloggers with enough local influence, contact them and find out if they can promote your apparel and items on their channels. The partnership doesn’t need to be complex: The collaboration can include the blogger publishing two Instagram posts and one blog post about your shop for an agreed-upon rate. (Note: depending on a blogger’s reach and your brand positioning, you might be able to strike a deal with some local bloggers for posts in exchange for some merchandise. Influencers with more reach will require a rate, so make sure to budget accordingly.)

    Depending on your target audience, consider whether you need mommy bloggers or younger influencers popular with tweens, teens or college kids.

    If you start your research early enough, you’ll have a better chance of identifying the top bloggers in your area. You can also try a tactic like searching for bloggers on Twitter and Instagram with a hashtag search like #[city name]blogger, or run a quick Google search.

    Master Back-to-School Season

    By using a strategic mix of these tactics and carrying on-trend apparel and accessories, you’ll likely see an impact on foot traffic in your storefront. So enjoy ringing in some more sales before the class bells ring this September.