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How Brands Are Navigating the Uncertainty of Back-to-School This Year

Amid the pandemic, with the uncertainty of what school will look like in the fall, the once-reliable shopping season has been upended.

For decades, the back-to-school shopping season has been a dependable boon for brands -- second only to the holiday season -- as kids and parents seek out new outfits and supplies for the classroom. In 2019, back-to-school saw approximately $80 billion in sales.

But amid the pandemic, with the uncertainty of what school will look like in the fall, the once-reliable shopping season has been upended, leaving brands and retailers -- not to mention families -- in the lurch.

'A Year Like No Other'

According to Lisa Rosenberg, president of consumer brands at global communications agency Allison+Partners, back-to-school 2020 is "a year like no other." Brands and retailers have had to scramble to enhance their online shopping capabilities and provide safe and secure contactless pickup options. They've had to grapple with the reality that apparel sales may be down, while technology such as laptops and gadgets remains in high demand.

And they've needed to let go of reliable, pre-produced marketing campaigns and replace them with ads that better fit the tone and realities of the 2020 season.

"Whereas many brands in the past would have had their back-to-school promotions and campaigns sort of locked in place back in May because back-to-school shopping would start in the latter part of July, we’re just not seeing that," said Rosenberg, who represents major names like PepsiCo  (PEP) - Get PepsiCo, Inc. Report and VF Corp's  (VFC) - Get V.F. Corporation Report JanSport .

"Brands don’t want to appear tone deaf. And so there's much more wait-and-see," she added.

JanSport's Campaign Pivot

Walmart WMT has embraced the uncertainty in its newest commercials, like this one that features the motto, "However you go back, we've got your back." And Rosenberg points to JanSport, the colorful backpack-maker, as another company that's successfully pivoted.

"We really were working with them to continue to create brand love at a time where products sales might not be as strong as they would typically be," said Rosenberg.

Responding to the pandemic, JanSport launched a campaign called “Lighten the Load,” geared at mental health. It focuses on issues that were spurred by the pandemic, like fear of missing out, isolation, sadness and other emotions that children and teens might currently be feeling.

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How Parents Plan to Spend

The good news -- at least for some brands -- is that even amid an economic downturn, parents are planning to spend on back-to-school this year. According to a survey conducted by Deloitte in June, parents are planning to spend the same amount on back-to-school as they did in 2019 -- $529 per household. However, what they’re spending on has changed.

“What we’ve seen is a move from apparel and traditional school supplies to computer hardware and electronic gadgets," said Rod Sides, a vice chairman of retail and distribution at Deloitte.

Planned spending in the computer hardware category was up 38% year-over-year, whereas apparel dropped by about 14%, according to the survey. And for the first time this year, the survey also added a new shopping category for home and health, which includes spending on personal hygiene products and things like desks and tables. That category represents about $2 billion in spending overall, or over $60 per family.

"That was a surprise for us that the category would be that high," said Sides.

Takeaway for Retailers

According to Will Margiloff, the chief strategy officer of Zeta Global, digital marketing is going to be the biggest driver of sales for retailers this year and "all years moving forward."

"The pandemic has accelerated the consumer adoption of technology, and retailers who are able to leverage customer data to accurately identify and personalize the right marketing/advertising and meaningfully connect with consumers across all of their devices are going to gain the most share of wallet," wrote Margiloff in an email.

"Those retailers that really pivot their marketing strategies to be in sync with how consumers are thinking and behaving are really going to come out on top," said Rosenberg.

Of course, not all brands will be able to weather the storm. More than 40 retailers have filed for bankruptcy this year, and according to S&P Global Market Intelligence, 2020 is set to have the highest amount of retail bankruptcies in a decade. Notable bankruptcies include Lord & Taylor and J.C. Penney  (JCP) - Get J. C. Penney Company, Inc. Report.

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