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Retailers Create Omnichannel Brand Experiences To Surpass Back-To-School Projections

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The back-to-school season is a key time for retailers to gauge consumer sentiment and spending patterns, as well as browsing and buying preferences across all channels. It also is a pivotal time of year for organizations to hone strategies in preparation for the upcoming holiday season.

In recognition of this important shopping time of year, a number of leading retailers — including Macy’s, Staples, Target, Walmart and Bonobos — are running innovative and unique back-to-school programs.

Merchants must be particularly savvy in their marketing approaches in 2013, since spending is expected to decrease slightly compared to the same one year ago. Research conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, and released by the National Retail Federation, has indicated that the average consumer will spend $634.78 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics — a slight drop compared to $688.62 in 2012. Total back-to-school spending, combined with back-to-college spending, is expected to reach $72.5 billion, compared to $83.8 billion last year.

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The economy is still putting a damper on spending, according to Pam Goodfellow, Director of Prosper Consumer Insights & Analytics. “Although consumer confidence is rising, it’s still not back to where we were before the recession. The payroll tax increase also has put a strain on budgets.”

To decrease spending but still make all necessary purchases, consumers are focused on making very budget-friendly decisions: 81% of consumers say the economy still is “weighing heavy on consumers’ minds,” according to the Prosper Insights research.

As a result, consumers will be searching for sales and coupons and price comparing across channels, Goodfellow explained. “All of the smart shopping strategies we picked up at the beginning of the recession will be consistent this year. For example, consumers will be doing a lot of shopping around and visiting stores to see what kind of deals they can get. They no longer feel committed to one retailer.”

Search will play a pivotal role in back-to-school, experts predicted.  The volume of site searches related to the season already have increased 16% over 2012, according to Bill Tancer, General Manager of Global Research at Experian Marketing Services.

“The top searches include ‘sale’ as a keyword, which confirms that people are using the web to find the best price possible,” Tancer said. “However, as we go further down the long tail, we’re seeing people search for specific items, as well as deals and offers from specific retailers.” 

Although more consumers are using the web to search for products and deals, research from ShopperTrak alludes to an increase in brick-and-mortar foot traffic: the store analytics company predicted that store traffic will increase 0.6% in August 2013 versus the same time in 2012. Similarly, in-store sales are expected to rise 4.3% over the same period.

Economic concerns, coupled with sporadic weather patterns, put a strain on brick-and-mortar sales at the beginning of 2013. However, Bill Martin, Founder of ShopperTrak, predicted that retailers will see improvements from the back-to-school season to the holidays.

“The economic dialogue coming out of 2012 and into 2013 really put a headwind on retailers,” Martin said. “We’ve also had unseasonably cold and warm weather, depending on the area of the nation. But what happens is with these patterns we also see pent up demand. As the season normalizes we’ll start to see that demand get released, leading to an increase in sales.”

Retailers across verticals are striving to get the most out of the back-to-school season by focusing on creating cutting-edge cross-channel marketing strategies. Companies such as Bonobos, Macy’s and Target are optimizing customer engagement and boosting word-of-mouth by implementing sales and campaigns that blend seamlessly from the store, to the web, mobile and social media.

Bonobos Nurtures Students Year-Round

As a brand that targets young and modern consumer, Bonobos finds the back-to-school shopper and student to be “a very attractive segment,” according to Jason Bornstein, Marketing Manager at Bonobos.

“This age segment has a lot of energy, and we’re a brand that’s focused on creating fun, energetic experiences that align with our fun colorful products,” Bornstein said in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “We can very much speak to this audience and they have fun responding.”

This year, Bonobos is moving forward with a student program that extends across paid search, social media and email. In 2012 the retailer implemented a similar strategy, which drove traffic to a unique landing page. Participating consumers entered their email addresses to receive unique offers and discounts for new products. For example, student program members received 25% off their first purchase, and then could tap into 15% discounts for each subsequent transaction, according to Bornstein. Due to the success of this model, the retailer is expanding the student program into a year-round initiative.

“We’re still building out what that content will look like but one thing we’ve offered is early access to sales and exclusive access to products, which really drive that incentive to browse and buy,” Bornstein said. “We also try to tie products and sale to the academic calendar, so when shoppers need a new outfit for formals, graduation or even football or basketball season, they’ll turn to us.”

Overall, Bonobos expects sales derived from the student program to be significantly higher, Bornstein reported, mainly because the company will be investing more in maintaining communications across all channels. Additionally, the retailer is using Convertro, a media and marketing attribution solution. As a result, the retailer will better understand consumer behavior across all touch points and revise the campaign based on performance.

“We initially implemented Convertro in March 2012 and were very pleased with the result,” Bornstein said. “We can rely on this solution to help us make better investments across all marketing channels.” 

Macy’s Strives For Omnichannel Excellence

back-to-school-shopping1Macy’s is looking to appeal to all segments of back-to-school shoppers, as well as parents, by taking an omnichannel approach to all promotions and events, according to Holly Thomas, VP of Media Relations and Cause Marketing for Macy’s.

“Macy’s is focused on creating a seamless shopping experience in our stores, online and through mobile,” Thomas said in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “Today’s customer always has her smartphone on hand, and Macy’s is committed to engaging her through new and emerging technologies to create a convenient, fun and interesting shopping experience. For the back-to-school season, we’re creating excitement and offering promotions through a variety of vehicles including web, mobile, social and our stores.”

The College Lifestyle initiative, for example, was designed to provide college-age students with a “crash course in dorm essentials,” according to a company press release. Students have access to a variety of content that showcases must-have products for a fun dorm room, covering a variety of categories, including bedding, bath, décor, kitchen and dining, and organization. Consumers then can add their favorite products to a digital wish list, and share their favorite products with friends across social networks. Finally, site visitors can enter a contest online — or via text message — to win a $500 Macy’s gift card.

“Shopping for heading off to college can be a daunting task, so we wanted our College Lifestyle sitelet to be equipped with the tools to help make the process easier,” Thomas said. “We know these college-aged customers are active on social media and are always texting to stay in touch, so we also included some convenient technology elements on the College Lifestyle sitelet for them to engage with.”

Macy’s also is partnering with Teen Vogue for Back-to-School Saturday, a one-day event. While shopping in stores, teenage consumers have access to a fashion showcase, live music and food and drinks. In addition to savings on a variety of products, Thomas explained that the retailer’s “back-to-school partnerships, events and promotions all will provide our customers with fun shopping experiences. Promotions and events like Teen Vogue Back-to-School Saturday allow us to create unique and fun in-store shopping experiences for our customers. When paired with our merchandise assortment, these special initiatives help to make Macy’s the back-to-school shopping destination for families.”

Macy’s is holding a Facebook-based contest to generate excitement among parents. For the First Day of School Photo Sweepstakes, parents have the chance to win a $500 Macy’s gift card if they visit the social network and upload photos of their children, aged five through 10, on the first day of school. Five winners will be selected during the contest, which will take place August 13 to September 11.

Staples Focuses On Personalization

To attract the back-to-school crowd, Staples is offering deals that encourage multiple visits and services that play into personalization trends.

“In terms of trends, we know that shoppers will always be looking for value, so that’s why we’ve brought back the ‘Back to School Savings Pass,’ now eligible even longer, until September 21,” said Mark Cautela, Public Relations Manager for Staples. “For only $10, parents can save 15% on school supplies once a day, perfect for families with several children or who make multiple trips. We also have extreme deals, including items for a penny, which can be seen in our weekly ad.”

Another trend Cautela pointed to was personalization: “Students like products that allow them to express themselves. To that end, this year we’re offering customizable composition covers that can be ordered on Staples.com then picked up at a Staples Copy & Print location, and lets kids pick their own pattern, add their name, and even include a photo.”

Cautela added that he sees many busy families conducting a combination of online and in-store shopping for the back-to-school season.

Target Strives To Appeal To All Customer Segments

Target also is trying to create unique campaigns and experiences for difference age segments. For consumers going to college, Target brought back uStyler, an online tool at Taget.com/college that allows students to mix and match dorm décor to help curate their own personalized look. Students can design virtual rooms and see how their vision will come to life — from bedding to decorative accents. uStyler allows students to share their designs with roommates and friends through Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

In stores and online, Target offers suggestions for on-trend items for making the most of any back-to-school budget. From August 7-12, Target will hold a Kids Got Style event to invite parents to share pictures of their kids showing off their unique style on Instagram using the hashtag #KidsGotStyle and tagging @Target.

Walmart Targets Teachers

Walmart is bringing back its Classrooms by Walmart site, an online registry where teachers can create and share lists of required supplies with parents and students. The retailer is also pricing aggressively for the back-to-school season, including more than 250 school supplies for less than $1.

Kmart is bringing back its layaway program for back-to school on items purchased through August 3. The retailer is also offering free in-store pick up so that college shoppers — or their parents — can purchase online and pick up their items from the store closest to their campus.

By adopting one or more of these creative ideas, retailers may be able to beat the odds during the 2013  back-to-school season.

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