Back-to-school shopping is upon us. In many ways, it will be different this year due in no small part to health concerns and the economic impact of COVID-19. But the hallmarks of the season will be what you have come to expect each year.  

Ultimately, as children get back to learning, moms, dads, guardians, and teachers will be on the hunt for deals and many will feel a sense of urgency to purchase every item on their list.

While you may be targeting the same consumers as in years past, their behaviors could be quite different this time around. A survey from Deloitte found that 56% of back-to-school purchases were done in brick-and-mortar stores last year.1 However, this year, concerns over the coronavirus are likely to drive even more people online for delivery or curbside pickup. In fact, 47% of shoppers (with school-age children) who are extremely or very concerned about COVID-19 plan to do more virtual shopping for back-to-school purchases.2



Uncertainty regarding children’s returns to school may also change consumer behavior and the selection of goods needed as they get back to learning. Kids involved in distance learning are unlikely to need the same supplies as those returning to classrooms. And families may need more quick and easy meals and fewer new school clothes. Of course, there have always been variations based on locale, but those differences will be amplified this year. So, you will need to combine old back-to-school standbys with new technology to succeed in the current reality.

How to Make the Most of Your Back-to-Learning Marketing Campaign

How you join the old with new will vary by brand and product. You are not going to promote a snack box in the same way you would a calculator or a pack of ballpoint pens, but there are ways to make sure this year’s back-to-learning marketing messages resonate with the right people at the right time.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you build out 2020 back-to-learning promotions:

1. Get in sync with your consumers. Cost has always been a factor in purchase decisions around back-to-school shopping. About 69% of consumers say prices are the biggest driver in product selection,3 but the ongoing pandemic has caused health and safety concerns to take center stage.

As such, this year you should develop back-to-learning promotions that combine traditional value messaging with an anticipation of consumers’ concerns and elements of convenience. Consider a targeted print or digital ad that includes a coupon or savings code while highlighting the various helpful shopping options you now offer to your customers, such as add to cart; buy online, pick up in store; or online grocery pickup functionality. Do whatever you can to meet shoppers halfway during this time of uncertainty.

2. Target on a hyperlocal basis. Back-to-school marketing campaigns traditionally launch 3–6 weeks before the start of the school year. Stores stock up and market their products to the public with urgency in the weeks leading up to school openings, then shoppers make essential last-minute purchases or wait until their preferred retailer has what they need.

With the rush to get back to learning looking a little different this year, so should the marketing routine. School calendars will vary by region, so you will want to plan sales events around school openings, or tax-free days that often take place in late July or early August. COVID-19 may affect your selling window – shortening the timing of a back-to-learning promotion.

What’s more, 68% plan to do their school supplies shopping at least three weeks before school begins.4 Be flexible and prepared to adjust campaigns accordingly.

Accounting for the varying needs and behaviors of your target audience will be important. As different regions begin to explore with different back-to-learning plans, understand that not every student will need to buy the same supplies. For example, most elementary classrooms ask students to bring a box of tissue for the class, but if you see areas veering more toward offering virtual-only schooling options, that may indicate the need to curb your tissue promotions.

In any event, there will be a number of consumers in the market for products outside of the standard back-to-school supplies, such as quick meals that remote students can prepare during lunch times at home. This presents new opportunities to segment your audience and develop very precise, targeted campaigns to increase the effectiveness of your promotions.

3. Take an omnichannel approach. The customer journey is rarely linear so you will want to cover the consumer from all sides. While that means using the most logical channels to reach your target audience, it also requires some foresight into when, exactly, to deploy each of them.

Sending a free-standing insert (FSI), flyer, or postcard six weeks before schools open can help gear consumers up for this year’s back-to-learning promotion. You may then want to follow up with a digital display ad or email three weeks later to reinforce your offer. And because there will always be those consumers who leave things until the last minute, you may want to drop another display ad as a reminder a week or two after school starts.

Remember to build flexibility into the campaign. We will all likely experience a few COVID-driven wrinkles this year. As we’ve seen so far this year, we all have to be on our toes. Great tech and good planning can help of course! Not only will it build your upcoming promotion, but it will also provide you with the flexibility to anticipate and provide real-time responses to consumer signals. That’s the best way to prepare for shopping for getting back to learning in the wake of COVID-19.

Are you prepared for how these actions and the business environment may impact your brand and products? If not, get yourself ready by reading Aimee Englert’s recent blog on lessons from the Great Recession that apply to finding value shopping for back-to-school items and other products in the current climate.

John Chesak is a marketing analytics consultant and leads best practices for Valassis. With over 25 years of industry experience John looks across verticals, clients, and media to uncover insights that lead to better campaign performance.


1 Deloitte Back-to-School Survey, July 2019

2 Prosper Insights & Analytics, COVID-19 survey, July 2020

3 Small Business Trends (citing RetailMeNot data), “Consumers Set to Spend $40 More This Year on Back to School Shopping,” July 18, 2019

4 NRF Back-to-Class Data Center, 2020