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How to Salvage the Back-to-School Season

Even with Covid-19 keeping many students at home, there’s still room for fashion brands to take advantage of the key shopping season.
School child wearing face masks and going back to school after Covid-19. | Source: Shutterstock
By
  • Chavie Lieber

NEW YORK, United States —Back to school, typically one of the best sales seasons for many fashion brands, is shaping up to be a bust.

The coronavirus pandemic is keeping schools across the US shuttered, and parents that are sending their kids back into classrooms are experiencing stress and anxiety. Recognising that consumers aren’t in the shopping mood, brands are tamping down the usual onslaught of ads for rainbow backpacks, sequin tees and Jojo Siwa bows.

American Eagle, which typically targets teens during the back-to-school season with denim content, has taken to its Instagram to promote voting, selling T-shirts with the civic participation organisation HeadCount. Janie and Jack, the kidswear brand that was bought last year by Gap Inc, has been promoting its preppy fall collection on social media without so much as a mention of school. Amazon Prime Day, the blockbuster sales event that kicks off the school shopping season, has also been postponed indefinitely. Back-to-school advertising activity has dropped 50 percent compared to last year, according to advertising data firm Numerator.

"There hasn't been a lot of conversations happening about back to school because there's a totally different sentiment around it now," said Michael Scheiner, chief marketing officer of Tommy Hilfiger Global, which isn't doing any back-to-school promotions this year. "There's so much uncertainty."

There hasn't been a lot of conversations happening about back to school because there's a totally different sentiment around it now.

The unusual back-to-school season is jeopardising one of fashion’s biggest sales periods. Shoppers spent over $80 billion during the back-to-school season last year, more than any other period other than the holidays, according to the National Retail Federation. The trade group predicts families will spend more this year on electronics and other items needed for remote learning, but less on fashion. Investment bank Cowen sees spending on clothes in the third quarter dropping about 10 percent.

“The more digital the school year is going to be, the more difficult it is going to be for retail,” said Steven Marotta, managing director of research and equity at C.L. King & Associates. “It’s going to be a dumpster fire of a season.”

New Routines

Kohl’s recently started advertising tablets, headphones and other electronic devices on its back-to-school landing page under the tagline “everything kids need to redefine the routine.” The section includes virtual school tools, backyard recess toys and even products to help recreate the school cafeteria at home.

Some brands are holding off on promoting school-themed products that they know won’t sell well in the current shopping climate.

Footwear retailer Payless plans to promote sandals and sneakers — products that parents would buy their children regardless of whether schools are open, said Chief Executive Jared Margolis.

“Whether they are staying home or not, kids are going to be active,” said Margolis. “We do think that there is a significant business still to be had, even if it's not as promising as previous years.”

Whether they are staying home or not, kids are going to be active.

Alixandra Barasch, a marketing professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business who studies consumer trends, said she sees an opportunity for brands to sell statement pieces and accessories to kids this season.

“The social-signalling game is a world of its own, and the psychological needs and status games won't go away just because kids will be learning online,” said Barasch. “It might not happen this year through a full wardrobe or backpack, but it can still happen with hairpieces, jewellery, loud T-shirts. There are still plenty of selling opportunities.”

Silver Lining

Even with fashion getting squeezed, some see a silver lining.

Katie Thomas, head of strategy and management consulting firm Kearney's Global Consumer Institute, said brands could also use the situation to break out of old patterns that no longer work. Much like how the rest of fashion is trying to pivot away from seasons dictated by the fashion calendar, Thomas said kidswear retailers should be concentrating on marketing efforts that grab parents' dollars beyond the July-through-September period.

“This whole situation has exposed the dangers of the calendarisation of retail and we need to move away from the mentality where we are dependent on these shopping days,” she said.

This could also foreshadow how brands will be handling Black Friday and holiday shopping. It’s a crucial season for retailers, but Thomas said brands should be looking into alternatives that keep shoppers coming back year-long. She recommended exclusive partnerships with designers and celebrities that drive shoppers to their stores, and to offer loyalty programmes that cost shoppers money, but provide value.

We need to move away from the mentality where we are dependent on these shopping days.

Marotta of C.L. King & Associates added that veering away from designated shopping events could help break the promotional cycles.

“A lot of retailers hold back to school events that are highly promotional, matching each other’s promotions because they have to and it’s become unhealthy for the industry,” he said. “It’s an important season and there are dollars to be had but it’s also true that the season is elongated.”

Brands can also apply what's been working with adults to their youngest customers. Scheiner of Tommy Hilfiger said the brand has been focusing on selling sweatpants and loungewear to kids. Old Navy has also been promoting fleece and cotton sweatsuits for kids going back to school.

“Comfort has always been important in kidswear and so we are pushing more towards products that consumers prefer to wear at home but can also be versatile,” Scheiner said.

Scheiner said the brand is anticipating the shopping trends that have emerged from Covid-19 will stick.

“This isn’t just a moment in time,” he said. “The value for consumers has shifted to quality and comfort.”

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