Back-To-School Shopping: How Retailers Can Cash in on This Busy Season

Back-To-School Shopping: How Retailers Can Cash in on This Busy Season

Back to school shopping, retailers | Shopify Retail blogAre 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 the winter holidays. As parents across North America get their children ready for a new school year, online and brick-and-mortar stores are working on their displays — 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.

And this year’s back-to-school season promises to be bigger than ever.

The stats speak for themselves:

  • According to the National Retail Federation and its “Back-to-School/College Spending Survey,” conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, back-to-school and college spending is projected to reach $75.8 billion this year (up from $68 billion last year).
  • The NRF also found that total back-to-school spending has grown 55% over the past 10 years.
  • The NRF projects that back-to-school spending per household has grown from an average of $630 last year to $674 this year.
  • Apparel and electronics represent 65% of this $674 household average.

Another interesting takeaway from the NRF’s survey is that more families have kids in school, thanks to the large generation of millennials who are now the parents of school-aged children — in fact, this is one of the factors contributing to the boost in total back-to-school spending.

National Retail Federation, back to school shopping | Shopify Retail blog

Image Credit: National Retail Federation

The relevance and need for back-to-school shopping now boasts a broader reach, as it appeals to young kids entering grade school, their millennial and Generation X parents, as well as Generation Z members (tweens and teens) in high school and college.

As a result, the retailers who recognize this multi-generational appeal will be the big winners of the back-to-school race.

Let’s take a look at some of the tactics and trends that will help you succeed.

4 Tips to Win at Back-to-School Shopping

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.

For starters, let’s go back to Gen Z: the back-to-school season presents the perfect opportunity to attract this younger generation.

According to this Ernst & Young, Gen Z’s influence on clothing and shoe purchases, for example, is set to spike this year. So there’s a huge opportunity for retailers selling apparel to engage with this highly social generation. Generation Z “lives out loud” — so Daniel Baer, partner and National Retail and Consumer Products Leader, suggests that “having a platform for two-way communication” is a must.

Younger generations don’t trust advertising; they trust their friends and what they read online in blogs and peer reviews.

The takeaway: Retailers need to be active in store, online, and on mobile.

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. It sounds obvious, but it’s important to stay top of mind to your target audience, especially if you’re competing with the one-stop shop convenience of big-box retailers (who might also send out circulars in the mail).

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, adults aged 30 to 49 can mostly be found on Facebook — we’re talking 73% of them. While they’re also playing on Instagram and Snapchat (25% of Instagram’s audience is 30 to 49, and 29% of Snapchat’s audience is 25 and older), 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 percent from a decade ago. This is staggering!

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

If you’re thinking of running Facebook ads, lists interesting targeting methods you can leverage, including:

  • Retargeting website visitors
  • Retargeting users who subscribe to your email marketing list
  • Serving up the ads to people on a mobile phone within a certain proximity to your store location (either passing through your area and on their phones, or living in your area)

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.

And speaking of 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 2016’s biggest trends.

Jack & Jill, for example, is an independent retailer based in Montreal that is known for stocking items with buzz.

We spoke with Jack & Jill owner Barbara Vininsky about some of the top back-to-school trends for 2016. Here is 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.

Emoji Everything

For starters, emojis continue to make the loudest statement. With everything from the “laughing face” and “heart eyes” emojis to unicorns and donuts, emojis speak louder than words.

You can find emojis on everything from backpacks and lunch boxes to pencil cases to iron-on patches and locker mirrors.


The ’90s craze is back with a vengeance. It’s become an innovative way to get foot traffic to independent retailers, thanks to the release of Pokémon GO, the location-based augmented reality game. Retailers are trying to cash in on the craze with Pokémon and Pikachu-inspired merchandise such as hats, backpacks, and wallets. Gotta catch ‘em all! 

Backpack Accessories: Clips & Patches

Backpacks are now adorned with decorative “clip-ons” and charms in all shapes and sizes, such as stuffed animals, junk food of all kinds, and emojis.

This is a perfect example of a novelty item that’s an easy impulse buy, as it adds a fun personal touch to any backpack at a low price point.

Pens, Pencils, Highlighters, and Stationery

Bando stationary | Shopify Retail blog

Image Credit: Bando

Despite this digital (and increasingly paperless) era, stationery items are experiencing a major comeback. There’s something personal and nostalgic about paper supplies and stationery, and retailers have taken note.

Fancy Water Bottles

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

Image Credit: S'well

Oh yes, even water bottles have received a splashy upgrade. Retailers are selling “upscale” bottles like the brand S’well, which now offers a smaller 9oz size to add to its line of popular water bottles.

Tech Accessories

For the older high school kids and college crowd, tech accessories are the top items on their list. Items like laptop and cell phone cases are popular: not only do they serve a functional purpose, they also allow for customization and personalization — an important trend.

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.

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.)

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,

Or, if you have a bit more budget and want to scale your outreach, try a blogger discovery and outreach platform like Pitchbox or BuzzStream Discovery.

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!

About the Author

Karin Eldor’s experience in online publishing has led to a fascination with the digital world and retail. When she’s not scrolling through her Instagram and Snapchat feeds, she can be found poring over fashion magazines (she still loves print — shhh, it’s our secret).

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