How Retailers Can Use People-Based Marketing to Win Back-to-School Shoppers

As September quickly approaches, everyone’s in back-to-school mode: parents, teachers, students, and of course, retailers. For many retailers, the annual back-to-school shopping trip taken by most families is second only to the holiday shopping season in terms of total combined spending. In fact, the total combined spending for back to school and college is predicted to reach $68 billion in 2015.

No longer does the whole family necessarily pile into a minivan and drive from the office supply store for binders to the mall for new clothes to the big box retailer for miscellaneous classroom items. Now, shoppers increasingly turn to their tablets, laptops, and smartphones in order to research and purchase items. That means retailers can’t rely on the same old marketing strategies anymore. Instead, they need to figure out the best ways to attract and convert this year’s crop of back-to-school shoppers, and they can do this by taking a people-based approach that communicates the right message to the right person at the right time.

Here’s what retailers should know.

Prepare for Last-Minute Bargain Shoppers

One of the retailer’s keys to success is knowing when shoppers are in-market for back-to-school items.

According to a recent study, 30% of back-to-school shoppers will wait until one or two weeks before school starts to begin shopping, and 37% of back-to-college shoppers will start shopping three weeks to one month before school starts. This research suggests that overall, buyers are waiting for more competitive pricing, and students want to wait and see what’s trending among their friends.

If retailers can successfully identify and act on signals of live intent, they are much more likely to reach their customers at the moments they are researching and then looking to purchase.

With higher conversion rates appearing later in the shopping season, also make sure to have extra staff on hand later in the season when visits are expected to peak, and prepare to adjust in real time. Pay close attention to local school start dates to ensure that your stores are prepared to meet local demand.

Customers Research on Mobile, But Purchase in Store

78% of parents plan on using their smartphones to browse for back-to-school gear, but that doesn’t always translate to making a purchase on their smartphones. More often, parents and shoppers use their smartphones for research and planning: making shopping lists, finding nearby store locations, comparing prices, accessing coupons, and more.

Research from Google and Nielsen supports this. 93% of people who use a mobile device for research go on to make a purchase, and 82% use their devices in-store to help them make a purchase decision. 63% use their devices to compare prices when out of the store.

The good news for retailers? Consumers who use digital devices when they shop convert at a 20% higher rate when compared to those who don’t use these devices. However, in order to get those conversions, retailers need to make the online customer experience seamless with the offline experience. That means retailers should take care to integrate the customer experience both in-store and online, and make it easy for customers in-store to have items shipped to their homes, or online shoppers to reserve items in-store. If retailers have a handle on their mobile strategy, they can also email or text coupons in the critical moments when customers are on the fence about making a purchase.

Always-on Customers Demand Relevant Experiences

Research shows that 77% of digital natives have come to expect a personalized web experience. When customers are always on, the bar for marketers is high.

For retailers, the goal is to address the needs of real people in a timely way. This means having the ability to identify customers across channels and devices in real time and all the time, building persistent, customer-level profiles that keep getting richer over time, and being able engage customers with messages that are personalized and relevant, within minutes of recognition.

The start of school is an exciting, often chaotic time for families and teachers. In order earn straight A’s from their back-to-school shoppers, retailers need to make the experience easy and seamless, and they can do that by using their first-party data to address the in-the-moment needs of parents and students.

Originally published August 25, 2015

Laurel Wamsley

Laurel Wamsley was the Marketing and Communications Manager at Signal, and the editor of Signal's blogs. She worked previously at the University of Chicago, Rackspace, and NPR.

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