4 Merchants Share Their Back to School Strategies

Two students with backpacks heading back into a school.

As summer ends and a new school year begins, businesses are greeted with a special chance to get creative and stimulate sales with back to school campaigns made to reach shoppers. For some, this sales period is a practice test before the holiday season; for others, it's a playground to experiment with new products or offers crafted specifically for returning students and their parents.

To help ensure your next back to school campaign passes with flying colors, we spoke with four merchants about the lessons they learned planning and producing sales events for one of the busiest shopping periods of the year: 

  1. Introduce limited edition products (without discounts) 
  2. Launch products to a new demographic
  3. Partner with organizations to raise awareness and funds
  4. Offer bundles and gifts with purchase

Introduce limited edition products without discounting 

Ross Canter grew up immersed in food culture. As a member of the family behind the landmark Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles, Ross spent his childhood surrounded by the offerings of the delicatessen and later found himself fascinated with creating his own baked goods. 

Ross’ lightbulb moment was brought on by having fun with his baking. “What if I made a Reese's peanut butter cup brownie, a cheesecake brownie, or any kind of candy into a brownie?” Ross recalls. He first began testing his candy-inspired confections during the onset of his career, pursuing writing internships in Hollywood. “Every day, I would make five or six different kinds of brownies. As soon as my internship ended in the early afternoon, I'd wrap up all of these brownies and walk around the outside of office buildings for a couple of hours until I sold out,” he recalls. 

Ross later landed himself roles as a writer and producer, but his newfound responsibilities forced him to put his jaunt into baking on hold. Then, in 2007, the Writers Guild of America unexpectedly went on strike, and Ross found himself out of work.

To get his mind off of things, Ross’ wife Melanie suggested turning his baking into a business and Cookie Good was born. Even though Ross returned to writing after the strike, fans of his baking kept on asking for more. In 2014, the couple took the plunge and got a commercial kitchen to turn Cookie Good into full time business. 

Ross and Melanie Canter, founders of Cookie Good.
Life and business partners Ross and Melanie Canter, the owners and creators behind the fun flavors at Cookie Good. Cookie Good

The Canters view the back to school season as a time of play. Each year, they launch a new eclectic set of cookies and brownies for a limited time during early September. With options ranging from apple fritters, Cheetos, cookie dough, cheesecake, and Oreos, no recipe is too unconventional, so long as it elicits what the team describes as the “Cookie Good” feeling—a rich, distinctive flavor able to recall an equally pleasant memory. Finding this elusive sweet spot, however, takes quite a bit of work. “We typically need a few months to experiment with flavors and get them exactly right,” Ross tells us.

The array of cookies for Cookie Good's back to school box.
The 2018 lunch box inspired back to school cookies created by Cookie Good. Cookie Good

“We try to make every flavor fun, nostalgic, and something that people want to send to kids, whether they're still in grade school or heading off to college,” Ross says. “And, of course, for people like me, a grownup who eats like a kid, who just want to eat a Ding Dong like a cookie.”

Cookie Good’s boxes are an example of the Canters’ unique take on specials. In lieu of pricing discounts or bundling specials, the team’s fresh, offbeat flavors serve as their only available limited-time offer. Marketing solely on social channels and email, the unique, limited-time flavors have provided a natural way to generate hype, and they've built a following of fans and subscribers who want to get the inside scoop on when to dig into the fun flavors before they sell out. 

Launch products to a new demographic 

While dress shopping for her daughter, Rebecca Melsky found the majority of patterns and prints available to be thoroughly humdrum. Flowers and butterflies were in ample supply, but where, in this sea of garments, were the cute dresses with dinosaurs, trucks, and rockets? Inspired to provide options that more closely spoke to her daughter’s interests, and to encourage girls to decide what it means to be girly, she started Princess Awesome with her co-founder, Eva St. Clair.

Girl models dress with math symbols.
A student wears Princess Awesome’s “I Spy Pi” super twirler dress. Princess Awesome

Rebeca and Eva originally made items by hand before switching over to a manufacturer and launching publicly on Kickstarter, which is also when they began making their first serious investments in marketing. Since those early days, the Princess Awesome team recognized the back to school season naturally created a heightened interest in their products, which is precisely why they use this period to litmus test more inventive marketing approaches.

Girl models a blue dress from Princess Awesome.
The “Atomic Flurry” Twirly Play dress being modeled. Princess Awesome

The team often launches new patterns and even wholly new products in the lead up to back to school. To support these releases, they’ll also run campaigns in parallel through Instagram, Facebook, and email, to amplify word of mouth they receive organically. “We love to showcase how clothing is a form of expression, and we enjoy highlighting the different subjects that kids are interested in,” Rebecca says, a philosophy which has influenced their marketing strategy.

With fans posting photos of what their kids are wearing to school on social channels, the team turned the tradition into giveaway campaigns during the period by encouraging more people to share their Princess Awesome outfits on social.

Adults model the new link of dresses from Princess Awesome.
Princess Awesome’s newly released line of dresses for adults. Princess Awesome

This year’s back to school period will mark a new chapter for Princess Awesome as the team launches their first set of adult dresses. Expanding their horizons and customer base, Rebecca tells us that their back to school campaigns will expand to include the other crucial member of the classroom: teachers. Going beyond the typical campaigns, Princess Awesome is marking this back to school season with experimentation expanding their catalogue.

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Partner with organizations to raise awareness and funds 

The idea behind LunchSkins was cooked up at founder Kirsten Quigley’s kitchen table. One afternoon, after returning home, Kirsten’s children shared an alarming fact they’d learned at school: every day, millions of plastic baggies were thrown out thanks to packed lunches. In response, Kirsten immediately sought out alternatives to the single-use plastics that were prevalent in the family’s own household but found most available solutions came up short.

Determined to make a dishwasher-safe, grease- and moisture-proof, durable sandwich bag, Kirsten created her own product and the first edition of LunchSkins was born. Now in business for over a decade, LunchSkins was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine and can be found online and at major retailers like Target and Wholefoods. 

Reusable lunch bags by LunchSkins.
Reusable sandwich and snack bags that are FDA compliant for food safety, dishwasher-safe, and BPA-free. LunchSkins

With most customers being parents and students, the back to school season has always been a crucial time for LunchSkins. Shannon Peters, their Chief Financial Officer, told us, “Back to school is equivalent to the retail holiday shopping season for LunchSkins—our team processes thousands of orders during this period. The business commonly sees a 60% uptick in online sales during back to school season, aided in part by extensive marketing campaigns that are built nearly six months in advance.”

Sea turtle LunchSkins.
Reusable navy sea turtle sandwich bags by LunchSkins were used in a campaign to support the Oceanic Preservation Society. LunchSkins

Even though back to school is unquestionably their busiest time of the year for sales, the LunchSkins team also makes time to fundraise alongside organizations that align with their objectives. This summer, Shannon shared, they “partnered with the Oceanic Preservation Society in July 2019 for two weeks, donating a dollar for every Sea Turtle Bag that was sold.” Due to the success of that campaign, LunchSkins will once again partner with Oceanic Preservation Society during back to school to reduce plastic use and bring more awareness to preserving oceanic life. 

Offer bundling and gifts with purchase 

Backpacks and back to school seem to go hand in hand, and that’s why the team at Parkland Design & Manufacturing, makers of sustainable accessories, refer to the shopping season as the “backpack Super Bowl.” As backpack makers who want to alleviate some of the environmental impacts with production, Parkland Design & Manufacturing turns plastic water bottles into a polyester fabric to make their product exteriors with 100% recycled plastic. Their fans proudly share their packs on social media with the hashtag #BagsFromBottles.

Students model backpacks from Parkland Design & Manufacturing.
The Remy, Academy, and Kingston backpacks by Parkland Design & Manufacturing. Parkland Design & Manufacturing

Breaking with standard benchmarks, Parkland Design & Manufacturing’s upswing in sales during the back to school season lasts longer than most businesses. “We see all areas of business activity increase drastically from July to September,” says marketing manager, Daryl Trinidad. Not keen to slack off during back to school, the team always looks to boost sales driven by this extended busy period with multiple timely marketing campaigns. “One of the most successful campaigns to date has been the Backpack Lunch Kit combo, where customers receive $10 off a backpack with a lunch kit purchase,” says Daryl. To get those bonus marks, the team also offers a gift with each purchase during back to school season, giving away free reusable water bottles last year and reusable straws this fall.

A gif example used in lifestyle marketing by Parkland Design and Manufacturing.
This back to school season, Parkland Design & Manufacturing are introducing gifs within their social ads. Parkland Design & Manufacturing

Leveraging the social media love from #BagsFromBottles, Parkland Design & Manufacturing usually place ads on Facebook and Instagram to be where most of their social engagements are. Daryl also sees these bundling and gift-with-purchase campaigns as a cost-effective way to build brand awareness, noting that their most recent ad, which features GIF animations of lifestyle imagery, was one of the best performing to date. The team has been planning this year’s campaign since the spring and is on track to meet their goal of a 30% growth over the same period last year. 

Ensuring your next campaign makes the grade

Before class is back in session, it’s time to test out some new ideas for the back to school period. The varied approaches, sales periods, and products from our featured merchants are reminders that you can play around with many areas of your business to build a campaign that fits your needs.