Back-to-school advertising activity drops 50% from last year, study says

Dive Brief:

  • Back-to-school (BTS) advertising so far in July is down almost 50% versus one year ago, as many families are unsure of the return to school this fall, per a new report from Numerator shared via press release.
  • The Back to School Index points to how by this time last year Staples, Target and JC Penny had already started advertising for the season, while this year only Walmart is running back-to-school ads already. Seventy-seven percent of consumers expect a different back-to-school shopping experience this year, with 30% saying they won’t bring their kids to stores to shop for school supplies and 41% planning to primarily buy supplies online while 25% will order online for in-store pickup.
  • When brands do advertise around back-to-school, they are likely to spend on TV this year, with the report revealing that the channel’s share of seasonal ads is already up to 33% from 19% in 2019, even as back-to-school has gotten off to a slow start. Promotional spend in the category has seen a 50% drop month-to-date in July, and promotional ads have shifted from print to the web. Notably, Amazon has been featuring heavy promotional activity for BTS categories..

Dive Insight:

Retailers, already reeling from months of shutdowns and wary consumers as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, now face an unprecedented year for the back-to-school season — typically one of the biggest shopping periods for some retailers — as schools around the country remain closed, some without reopening plans set in stone and others with plans to go completely online. Numerator’s report suggests that, under the circumstances, many retailers are holding back on marketing to save money, and those that are running ads are placing a greater emphasis on TV because fewer people will be browsing store aisles.

As consumers await to hear plans from their local governments and school districts, there is a lot of uncertainty that could make consumers hesitate about any back-to-school related purchases until they know what the plans will look like. Spending for the season is expected to be flat this year compared to the 2019 back-to-school season, with sales totaling $28.1 billion and 37% of budgets going online, up from 29% last year, according to a recent survey by Deloitte.

In a continuation of a trend that emerged with pandemic-related shutdowns, back-to-school shopping is moving online, or consumers are opting for in-store pickup as they look to stay out of stores until the pandemic subsides. In a possible preview of what fourth quarter marketing might look like, with fewer shoppers in stores for back-to-school, retailers are shifting their marketing focus away from traditional print circulars and investing more in television.

It isn’t surprising that Amazon is pushing back-to-school promotions. The e-commerce giant has become the largest advertiser in the world and likely sees an opportunity to piggyback on a spring in which it became a reliable source for many Americans in lockdown to turn to for resources to entertain and educate their children by making sure parents know it is a source for back-to-school supplies.

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