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Is Your SMB Prepared for Back-to-School Season?

Siri Hedreen

Here are five tips to get ready for the second-largest retail season of the year.

September is the unofficial "personal rebranding" month as millions of students return to school, newly committed to raise their GPAs, make varsity or adopt a goth aesthetic. As one of the largest shopping seasons of the year (second only to the holiday season), it's also an excellent branding opportunity for small businesses.  

We spoke to several business owners and marketing experts on how SMBs can prepare for back-to-school season.

1. Stock up for an increase in sales volume.

This year, the National Retail Federation (NRF) has forecasted record back-to-school spending, with an average of $696.70 per K-12 family and $976.78 per family with a college student. That makes for a total combined spending of $80.7 billion across the country.

It's not just the Crayola vendors who should be stocking up their inventory. The NRF also forecast total back-to-school spending in the following areas, ranked according to expected sales.

Top back-to-school season categories:

  1. Clothing and accessories (excluding shoes)
  2. Electronics or computer-related equipment
  3. Shoes
  4. School supplies

Top back-to-college categories:

  1. Electronics or computer-related equipment: $13.1 billion
  2. Clothing and accessories (excluding shoes): $8.3 billion
  3. Dorm or apartment furnishings: $6.7 billion
  4. Food items: $5.5 billion
  5. Shoes: $5.3 billion
  6. Personal care items: $4.5 billion
  7. School supplies: $4 billion
  8. Gift cards: $3.7 billion
  9. Collegiate branded gear: $3.5 billion

2. Create a marketing campaign with a back-to-school season tie-in.

For the retail industries listed above as well as peripheral services like tutoring, hair salons and food subscription services, clever back-to-school tie-ins are an excellent way to capture some of that sales volume.

Effective campaigns should serve as primers, letting your customer know how your business can be of use during back-to-school season.

"Your [email marketing] subject lines need to let the user know that they will save time by opting to open the email," said Tom Buchok, founder of MailCharts. For example, "recently, Gap used a subject line similar to '7 Styles, 5 Outfits for the First Week of School.' As a parent, wouldn't that sound great, to forgo the style pairings and merely select a size, click, and purchase?"

Less obvious businesses can also creatively employ back-to-school tie-ins. Often enough, it's only a matter of labels.

"We recently deployed a Yelp campaign to coincide with back-to-school," said Sam White, marketing manager of Del Mar Jiu-Jitsu Club. "We positioned ourselves as an after-school program including classes for kids ranged 3 to 9+."

3. Familiarize yourself with local school hours.

Most schools post their class schedules and holiday calendars online. Knowing when class gets out each day and when breaks roll around can help you not only predict traffic, but align your schedule to meet your customers' schedules. For example, Del Mar timed its kids' classes to fit school hours, White said.  

Knowing class schedules can also open up promotional opportunities. Hospitality services can set up packages during three-day weekends, or coffee shops can promote before-school specials for teachers – bonus points for a loyalty or incentive program to make it a daily routine throughout the school year.

4. Meet the customers where they are.

Spending may be up, but September is still a hectic time of year. Parents, students and teachers are going to opt for convenience. With only 16% of respondents to an NRF survey saying they plan to use local or small businesses for part of their back-to-school shopping, SMBs cannot expect the customer to approach them first.

One way to accommodate this is by meeting back-to-school consumers where they are, White said – school. "We're doing community events and going to the schools to introduce ourselves and the program."

For e-commerce, another strategy is to offer free shipping, something that 90% of K-12 and 80% of college shoppers plan to take advantage of. For a demographic that's still molding their lifelong spending habits, an investment like this may pay off as students are converted into repeat customers.

5. Know your back-to-school season shoppers.

For those marketing to elementary school-age children, your products and services may be intended for kids, but parents have the power of the purse. This means marketing should be tailored to parents' concerns.

"History has shown that offering as many touchpoints with parents helps lower perceived risks for parents who are concerned not only with jiu-jitsu," White said, "but, more importantly, who they will entrust their kids' safety with."

Beyond elementary school, students are making more of their own purchasing decisions, which is where direct social media marketing may come into play. Teens are spending $36.71 on average, up from $30.88 in 2009, while preteens are spending $26.40, up from $11.94 in 2009.

"Members of Generation Z are clearly becoming more involved with back-to-school purchasing decisions rather than leaving the choices up to Mom and Dad," said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the NRF, in a statement.  

Given gender stereotypes about shopping, what may come as a surprise is the NRF's finding that men spend significantly more during back-to-school season than women – a difference of $182.50 for K-12 and $391.19 for back-to-college shopping. Direct your ad campaigns accordingly. 

Image Credit: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock
Siri Hedreen Contributing Writer
Siri Hedreen is a graduate of King’s College London, where she wrote for Roar News, London Student and Edinburgh Festivals Magazine. Find her on Twitter @sirihedreen.