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Back-to-School Uncertainty is Forcing Brick-and-Mortar’s Evolution

As many remain wary of the risks of shopping in brick-and-mortar stores, retailers are taking proactive steps to entice parents in need of back-to-school gear for their growing kids.

Whether children end up attending physical classes this fall is a question yet unanswered for most families, who have been cooped up at home—studying, working and doing almost everything else—together for the past four months.

The potential return to schools will ultimately depend on state and local governments, as cities and towns across the country have seen varied rates of infection and recovery. But to head off the issue, which remains largely unaddressed, retailers are digging into contactless omnichannel solutions along with reimagined advertising campaigns.

Some kids may not step back into their classrooms this year, but, retailers argue, they still need new duds.

The consumer perspective

July data from market research firm Numerator reveals that shoppers’ behaviors are likely to shift dramatically from years past.

Three-quarters of all households surveyed said their back-to-school shopping experience would be different this time around, and 30 percent said they would not be bringing their children to stores to prepare for the school year. Instead, 41 percent plan to shop primarily online for the goods that they need. About one-quarter will use buy online, pick up in store services to create a reformed school shopping experience.

Still, the general timing for back-to-school shopping, which usually occurs in late July and early August, is “likely to hold up this year,” Amanda Schoenbauer, Numerator content marketing and insights associate manager, wrote.

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“In terms of intended spending, 82 percent said they planned to spend about the same amount as last year on back-to-school products,” she added.

A full two-thirds of consumers reported not knowing if their kids will be in live or virtual classrooms this fall. “The lack of clarity on back to school is both understandable and frustrating,” Numerator CEO Eric Belcher said in a statement. “As consumers wait to see what back to school looks like, brands and retailers are waiting too.”

Promotional strategies

The lingering uncertainty has retailers treading water in the near term. Stores’ promotional activity is down by half this season, compared with the same period last year, Belcher said, warning of greater “volatility expected” in advertising numbers as stores struggle to chart a course forward.

Many retailers appear to be employing a wait-and-see strategy when it comes to shelling out for expensive online ads and airtime. By this time last year, Numerator  reported on July 20, stores like Target and J. C. Penney had already dug into heavy promotions. This year, Walmart was the only big box or department store to start early.

But with shoppers cooped up at home like never before, Numerator expects to see brands bet big on television in the weeks to come. Despite the slow start to the back-to-school season, TV ads have already jumped in share of ads by count from 19 percent in 2019 to 33 percent in 2020.

Promotional spend was, for years, very predictable, according to Numerator. But ads for school supplies, electronics and apparel have been highly disrupted in 2020, with a 50 percent drop in promotional activity month-to-date in July. Additionally, print-based promos, once a highly popular tactic, have gone out the window, shifting mostly to the web.

How stores are reaching shoppers

While stores are holding back on ad spend, they appear to be funneling funding into other services that make shopping more convenient for parents.

Kohl’s has promised to provide “safety and convenience” through a suite of omnichannel solutions.

A new “Drive Up” service allows shoppers to pick up their orders in the parking lot of their local Kohl’s store. After purchasing online or on the Kohl’s app, consumers simply drive to the store and park in a designated spot to wait for an associate to place their order in their trunk or back seat. The experience allows shoppers to experience the instant gratification of shopping in store, without the physical contact.

The mass-market retailer has also curated a back-to-school page on its website based on top-trending product categories, and a checklist to help frazzled parents ensure they cover all their bases. A mobile app allows shoppers to manage their loyalty points and access exclusive discounts, as well as order products for home delivery or Drive Up service.

For parents who do decide to shop in store, Kohl’s said it has taken steps to ensure health and safety. Signage and floor decals have been put in place to encourage proper social distancing, protective barriers have been installed at all registers to limit contact at checkout, carts will be sanitized regularly, and the number of shoppers in store will be limited by associates.

“As parents know, this back-to-school season is like none we’ve seen before, and we will continue to offer an easy, convenient shopping experience for their back-to-school needs—whether that means heading back to school or logging in from home,” Greg Revelle, Kohl’s chief marketing officer, said. Revelle touted the store’s app and Drive Up service as time-saving conveniences that could benefit families in the weeks ahead.

Walmart is also doubling down on the idea of contactless back-to-school shopping.

The big-box behemoth is offering same-day pickup and delivery across a selection of more than 160,000 items like back-to-school merchandise, according to a statement this month. Walmart’s express service guarantees delivery in under two hours, while next-day delivery or two-day delivery are offered for free on orders over $35.

Walmart+, the retailer’s loyalty program set to launch this month as a rival to Amazon’s Prime subscription, will also offer shoppers same-day delivery on a number of items, as well as early access to store promotions.

Payment via the Walmart app is also available to use in-store, creating a contact-free solution to checking out in person.

“Fall learning will look and feel very different this year—and families are balancing a lot,” Jill Sando, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer of style and owned brands for Target, said in a statement.

Target had assessed consumer concerns in crafting new, “stress-free shopping experiences” to help send kids back to school, “or settle in for at-home learning,” Sando said.

The big-box retailer is offering a handful of ways for cautious, busy parents to get their hands on the fashion and supplies their kids need.

Same-day delivery is available through Shipt, the delivery provider that Target acquired in 2017. Consumers can purchase goods through the Target app or online, and a Shipt personal shopper couriers the products to their door in as soon as an hour. The service is available in most regions with the Shipt membership, or shoppers can choose to pay a one-time delivery fee.

Like Kohl’s, Target is also offering its own Drive Up service, where shoppers place orders online or through the Target app, and drive to a designated spot in their local store’s parking lot to collect their products. Order pickup in store is also still available, helping shoppers limit their time inside of the retailer’s walls while still allowing them fast access to product.

Target, like Walmart, also offers free two-day shipping on orders over $35. Both retailers have gained on online giant Amazon in recent months with their increasingly speedy delivery capacities, proving that the battle for consumers’ wallet share hasn’t been lost to digitally native businesses.