Defining the new norms of back-to-school omnichannel shopping


Defining the new norms of back-to-school omnichannel shopping

The 2021 back to school shopping season in the United States is in full swing and it has been anything but traditional. For many, uncertainty looms around what the new normal school year could look like with the continuing spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant, regional mask mandates changing on a daily basis, and shifting school opening dates. 

Today, four factors are influencing the modern omnichannel shopping experience: availability, curation, immediacy and excitement. Applying NielsenIQ’s omnichannel experiential framework to the back to school shopping season highlights areas of risk and opportunity for both brands and retailers.

Navigating the new norms of the back-to-school season

The unique uncertainties of the start of this school year are directly impacting what people buy, where they shop, and when they shop for supplies. Over the next month, NielsenIQ will be collaborating with Burbio, the industry leader in aggregating school opening data, to report on the latest back-to-school dynamics within the U.S.

Key shifts to America’s return to school

The new norms as of August 19th, 2021

Nearly 54% of the Top 200 school districts in U.S. have a mask requirement in effect

As of August 19th, 2021

Only 11% of the Top 200 school districts have no virtual offering available

During the 2020 back-to-school season

U.S. omnishoppers with kids spent 17% more than shoppers with kids who purchase exclusively within brick and mortar stores  

Source: 1) NielsenIQ Omnishopper Panel, US shoppers with kids under the age of 18, 2020 back-to-school period Jun. 28 – Sept. 26, 2020, 2) Burbio School Opening Tracker, US students Kindergarten – 12, recorded as of Aug. 19, 2021, Top 200 school districts as defined by the NCES

Availability: back in-stock for back-to-school

Amid port congestion and ongoing supply chain disruptions, shoppers will do what they must to avoid empty shelves, online stock shortages, and delivery delays. For retailers and manufacturers, ensuring availability and reliably delivering on in-stock promises will be key to their omnichannel strategy and winning over back-to-school shoppers this year. 

According to NielsenIQ, the depth of product assortment carried in stores for certain back to school products may be limited as retailers grow ever more selective of shelf facings. In fact, data from both the 2020 back-to-school season and July 2021 shows that there are significantly fewer items carried in stores among key categories like lunch boxes, office supplies, and lunch meal combos, to name a few.

Burbio highlights that by the end of the 2020-2021 school year, nearly 1 in 3 students were in a non-traditional learning format. As many households prepare for what might be their first post-pandemic school shopping spree, the shopping experience has the potential to emphasize which brick and mortar or e-commerce outlets can reliably meet their needs. 

Curating the back-to-school shopping experience by district

Many shoppers have been out of market now for multiple back-to-school seasons consecutively. As a result, shoppers will be craving guidance, recommendations and ultimately, a curated browsing experience as they embark on the back-to-school purchase journey. 

According to Burbio findings, school start dates vary drastically, where even within the same  state, there may be stark differences in school opening dates by county compared to years past. For example, in Montgomery County, Alabama, schools will start 5 days later than in 2020, yet, in neighboring Autauga County, Alabama, school is starting 34 days earlier than last year. The relevance and timeliness of curated experiences need to account for the varying local timelines of back-to-school shoppers. 

The curation experience must also take into account shifting retail norms for discovering and browsing school-related products. For a number of product categories aligned to these seasonal decisions, e-commerce has grown to represent a larger proportion of overall purchases. In fact, NielsenIQ omnipanel measures highlight that over 50% of lunch box purchases in the U.S. occurred via an online channel, and food categories like salty snacks and granola bars continue to gain traction via e-commerce. As a result, e-commerce now plays a much larger role in the curation and purchase experience. 

Respond with immediacy to the news cycle

As the threat of COVID-19 variants mount, for some parents, the uncertainty of how schools will manage outbreaks, testing, masks and learning format options, may be hindering or delaying back-to-school shopping efforts to the very last possible moment.

The world remains in a state of constant flux, and this is why catering to immediacy in the omnichannel shopping experience is so critical. In the age of quick-commerce and instant gratification, there are plenty of ways to link today’s current events with moment-in-time shopping solutions. 

Burbio research confirms that mask mandates by school district and state, can pivot on a dime. In areas where mask mandates can be locally mandated by school districts, changes are occurring almost daily, which may have dramatic effects on consumer behavior. Things like drinkable smoothies or pre-packaged fruit snacks, might be much more attractive to consumers anxious about their kids’ exposure and comfort during the weeks following a mask mandate shift. These nuances and impacts to buying behavior are worth noting as experiences are built with impulsive needs in mind. 

Building excitement into the new norms of back-to-school shopping

There are huge emotional and health implications to families sending their kids back to school. Therefore, it is on companies to empathize with consumers’ polarized mindsets, and find ways to support, innovate and inspire excitement around school-related purchases. 

Companies can build excitement into the omnichannel shopping experience through unique anxiety-reducing and convenience-oriented solutions. From offering free sanitization of new purchases as they leave the store, to loyalty benefits that offer personalizable school merchandise, there are a plethora of experiential touchpoints to bring excitement back to the 2021 back-to-school shopping experience.

Omnishoppers with kids were a lucrative cohort in terms of spending per trip in 2020. During the 2020 back-to-school season, U.S. omnishoppers with school-aged children spent 6% more than other U.S. omnishoppers and 27% more than Americans who shop exclusively within brick and mortar outlets. But, finding ways to appeal to these valuable shoppers will need to account for new considerations this year.  

Omnishoppers were essential to 2020’s pandemic back-to-school season.

During the 2020 back-to-school season, US omnishoppers with kids spent…

+6% more per trip vs. the average US omnishopper

+17% more per trip vs. brick and mortar shoppers with kids

+27% more per trip vs. the average US brick and mortar shopper

Source: NielsenIQ Omnishopper Panel, Total US vs. shoppers with kids under the age of 18, 2020 back-to-school period Jun. 28 – Sept. 26, 2020

While the future of schooling and the pandemic at large remains uncertain, one thing is clear: shoppers are preparing for a number of scenarios to shape what the new normal back-to-school season may look like. From shifting school start dates, to changing product assortment, new mask mandates and new omnichannel shopping norms, there will be no globally-unifiable back-to-school season and therefore, no single shopping experience that suits all. As the U.S. school year kicks off, it will be imperative that companies think beyond the concept of a one-stop-shopping destination, to ascend to optimizing and personalizing today’s omnichannel shopping experience