What back-to-school 2021 teaches brands about their promotions


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Back-to-school season meant back to shopping for the 70+ million students who returned to K–12, undergraduate and graduate studies this fall. After more than a year of record savings—which peaked with a 33.8% personal saving rate in April 2020 and maintained double digits well into 2021—people were ready to spend again. Back-to-school proved to be the perfect catalyst.

When total sales have been counted, the National Retail Federation (NRF) estimates that families with children will have spent $37.1 billion (up from $33.9 billion in 2020) at an average of $848.90 per family. NRF also estimates that college students and their families will have spent $71 billion (up from $67.7 billion) at an average $1,200.32 per family.

All of this spending was initiated to prepare students for class, but what’s happening now? What are their shopping preferences, and what insights can brands and retailers glean from that information?

Learning at school, shopping at home

In-person class time may be embraced by many students, but when they shop, a large portion plan to continue relying on the internet. According to NRF, nearly half (48%) of K–12 shoppers and more than two-fifths (43%) of college shoppers prefer to buy their school items online.

This is an extension of the hybrid shopping model that grew in popularity in 2020. Consumers were especially appreciative of the variety of options—delivery as well as curbside and in-store pickup—that retailers and delivery services introduced and popularized last year. While they may be more likely to shop in-person for meat and frozen foods, consumers have no qualms about ordering shelf-stable products and non-food items that don’t need to be as closely scrutinized. Is there really any need to buy large household products in-store? If you’re already there and it’s a good price, then why not? But if shopping at home is quicker and the item is in stock, who wouldn’t click the “buy” button instead of making a trip to the store?

Brands should take note of this trend and recognize that digital promotions are now an essential part of their marketing mix. If a particular brand or retailer has yet to catch up, or if their digital offer has been deployed but isn’t on par with their competitors, they could miss out on numerous sales opportunities—especially given eCommerce’s recent growth in prominence. There is no going back to the old way of doing things—consumers love the flexibility and convenience that hybrid shopping provides. As the technology improves, as devices advance and as brands and retailers develop new ways to improve the experience, the use of eCommerce options will only increase.

Searching for value wherever and whenever possible

Quotient internal reporting shows that in the days leading up to school, popular and easy-to-carry consumables—juice boxes, bread and lunchmeat—experienced a sales lift between 5% and 15%.1 Lunch combos increased by the same margin, and their purchases created a cascading effect; those who bought them were 10 times more likely to buy yogurt.1 They were also more likely to purchase fruit snacks and applesauce.1

These are important purchases, to be certain, but the expenses can add up fast. While many consumers increased their personal savings by a greater amount than they had before the pandemic, their buying power has since been reduced by skyrocketing inflation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, all items in the Consumer Price Index reached 5.4% in July 2021 alone.

To compensate, consumers will be looking for value whenever and wherever possible. This is important because our internal reporting shows that the back-to-school period is a huge driver of sales for brands. Savings on lunch items and school supplies tend to go up by more than 50% versus the other months of the year. But consumers won’t be content with one or two months of discounts.1 They’ll shop around more often and compare prices before making a purchase.

Brands and retailers can assist consumers in their search for value by providing promotions that are targeted, relevant and resonate with shoppers. This is especially critical for advertisers that are looking to attract consumers they may have lost over the last year, a period in which brand loyalty became less important than availability and value. People may be returning to old habits, but their buying preferences may not easily revert if their replacements offer the value they’re seeking and prove to be just as good. Brands will have to work a little bit harder to ensure that any ground lost during the pandemic is made up for in the months to come.

Brands can learn a lot from parents and students

Whether looking at the specific items they are interested in purchasing or the tactics they use to save, there is a lot that brands and retailers can learn from consumers’ back-to-school shopping habits. Brands should take note of these trends to ensure they are meeting the needs of their consumers while implementing new strategies to attract shoppers this year and beyond.

1 Quotient Internal Reporting (Aug 2017 vs. Jan to July/Sept to Dec 2017; Aug 2018 vs. Jan to July/Sept to Dec 2018; Aug 2019 vs. Jan to July/Sept to Dec 2019)

Steven Boal
Steven Boal founded Quotient in 1998 and serves as the CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors. Prior to founding Quotient, Boal served as vice president of business development for Integral Development Corporation, and was vice president and head of global emerging markets derivative technology at J.P. Morgan. Before that, he was president of OptEdge, a real-time options, analytics and risk management business. Boal also held various management positions at TriStar Market Data, eventually running the company’s Montgomery Securities division.


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