Marketers hoping for a more straightforward back-to-school season in 2021 could feel creeping dread as health experts and financial analysts sound the alarm on the COVID-19 delta variant and reinstatement of public health measures, including indoor mask mandates in several major U.S. cities. Lingering uncertainties are coupled with the continued shift to online sales channels that legacy retailers and packaged goods brands have scrambled to keep pace with over the past year.
The upshot is that the shopping period — historically cut-and-dry, with a strong focus on deals and discounts — remains a play-it-by-ear situation, albeit one that could be more navigable with the application of digital tactics refined since the last seasonal cycle.
"Because this year has been so flipped upside down for retailers, they just don't know what to expect," said Stacy DeBroff, chief executive of influencer marketing firm Influence Central. "If they were looking at the trends of prior years, they would think that more functional items with price consideration would be driving business. I don't think that is it."
One positive aspect of this year's back-to-school season is a clear return in demand for items that made less sense in an all-remote environment. Certain supply chain issues are less of an impediment than they were even a few months ago, while parents are signaling a willingness to open their wallets.
"Everyone needs a lot of new stuff," said Janet Balis, marketing practice leader at EY Americas. "There are a lot of purchase categories that one can anticipate demand not only returning to normal levels, but perhaps hitting peak levels."
Fifty-eight percent of surveyed consumers expect to spend more across categories heading into the new school year, according to data compiled by Influence Central. Apparel sales alone are set to jump 78% compared to the depressed 2020 season, per Mastercard's latest SpendingPulse survey.
"We're starting to see denim come back, but we're also seeing comfort and activewear are still in the game," said Mary Alderete, chief marketing officer of Gap. "Comfort, sustainability, all of those elements still being in that mix, I think that's important for moms."
Where people are buying is also changing dramatically, with the e-commerce boom extending well beyond the usual suspects such as Amazon. Seventy-four percent of parents have purchased an item based on a link or image in a social media influencer's post, with Instagram and Facebook the lead platforms, per a recent study by Rakuten. TikTok, the preferred app among teens, is also expanding its commerce capabilities as it becomes a clear cultural trendsetter that can lead products to sell out virtually overnight.
"It used to be that you would search social media, see something, but then you'd have to find somewhere else to buy it. Now, all the sites are making it really easy to shop from content," DeBroff said. "What's been increasingly sophisticated is the ability to link from social commerce straight into the shopping cart on a retailer site. This is going to be a huge piece of the shopping puzzle."
That's not to say in-store will be a nonentity. Eighty-nine percent of parents plan to head out to physical retailers for some of their shopping this year, per Rakuten, with nearly 60% reporting they will be "very comfortable" doing so. But traditional brick-and-mortar players, including Walmart and Target, are making aggressive moves into the online space while trying to get more brands to advertise within their digital ecosystems.
"There's more of an overall performance marketing orientation in a way that everyone is buying across the board, and this is no exception."
Marketing practice leader, EY Americas
Rising interest in digital retail media is leading to dealmaking that could factor into the back-to-school period as well. Agency giant Publicis, for example, recently acquired e-commerce performance marketing platform CitrusAd, speaking to surging client demand for retail media services.
"Given the acceleration of e-commerce, retail media is something that I would expect a lot of marketers to pay a lot more attention to," Balis said. "Frankly, there are more options than ever before in terms of both physical retail media and digital retail media."
Digital channels enable a degree of geographic and demographic targeting that's difficult to achieve on linear media. Given the sometimes vast disparity in vaccination rates on a state-by-state level, that granularity could be essential this year versus merely being a nice thing to have.
"Different brands have always deployed national, regional and local advertising strategies. I think that this back-to-school season begs for a really concerted focus on those," Balis said. "There's more of an overall performance marketing orientation in a way that everyone is buying across the board, and this is no exception."
A sunnier outlook on the sales front could be upset amid the recent spike in COVID-19 cases driven by the delta variant. Washington, DC this weekend joined other U.S. cities, including St. Louis, Los Angeles and Savannah, Georgia, in reinstating indoor mask mandates.
"This will only serve to delay back to school shopping as parents' anxieties rachet up, and we'll face a possible hybrid of virtual and in-person learning in the upcoming school year," DeBroff said in a follow-up email about the fast-moving delta variant situation.
Marketers must thread the needle in their messaging between generating excitement about the potential return to classes while acknowledging there are still different comfort levels regarding issues like visiting stores or having to wear a mask out in public.
"It's really important to recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach to messaging or connecting with consumers is not likely to be successful," Balis said. "You're going to have these strange contradictions.
"Having empathy for the end consumer with whom you're communicating is particularly important right now," she added.
Marketers are still looking to tap into a sense of renewed optimism that's shown signs of flagging as it becomes clear that the pandemic finish line is farther away than many people may have expected. Children's apparel brand OshKosh B'gosh last week debuted a campaign titled "Today is Someday" that features kid versions of Mariah Carey, Muhammad Ali and the rap group Outkast as they share uplifting messages of determination.
"Having empathy for the end consumer with whom you're communicating is particularly important right now."
Marketing practice leader, EY Americas
The campaign is 125-year-old OshKosh's first work with Majority, the agency co-founded earlier this year by Shaquille O'Neal, and features a "robust" investment across digital, connected TV and social channels, according to the company.
"We saw so much disruption in kids' lives last year, so we felt it was important to build confidence and excitement as kids head back to school, from our products to the messages we are sharing," Jeff Jenkins, executive vice president of global marketing at OshKosh parent Carter's, said over email.
Gap is trying to key into similar sentiments while recognizing what's been lost over the pandemic and the unusual environments many students will be returning to after a year of holding classes remotely. The retailer's latest GapKids' effort celebrates the connection between a real-life educator, David Jamison, and his fifth-grade students. Jamison went viral for showing off the personalized handshakes he gives each student every morning, which were adjusted for no-touch protocols last year.
"It's incredible to think how many kids missed out. I read something yesterday about how there's two freshmen classes coming into high schools this year and into college because they didn't get to have their freshman year," said Gap CMO Alderete. "Kids are just so excited to come back to school and have this energy."
Natalie Koltun contributed to this story.