Parents and politicians have spent the better part of the last few weeks debating the answer to the back to school question.  We are drawing ever closer to the start of the fall school year and each day seems to bring more confusion than clarity. This volatility has trickled down to retailers who have counted on the traditional back to school shopping to boost sales. These chains hoped for a clear direction as the summer wore on so that they could plan merchandising accordingly. Companies had already begun rolling out in-store displays and offering deals on an assortment of items including clothes, pencils, and composition books. While parents and students will need to gather school supplies, the uncertainty as where students will be when class is back in session has cooled shoppers on products that are usually hot.

Polls around the U.S., and even CSG’s own poll on whether schools should reopen, show that parents are decidedly split on the answer. This has been combined with a unique approach from each state and has caused a nightmare for manufacturers and retailers. Big box stores have the difficult challenge of coming up with a unique marketing approach for each state and even smaller chains have encountered problems with differing approaches in specific counties. According to NRF at least 68% of shoppers plan to begin their shopping at least three weeks before school begins. Even with some fall semester start dates pushed back, retailers have had to get creative to spur the shopping season.


Hand sanitizer is at the top of every list with stores stocking the product right next to pencils and backpacks and digital sites like Office Depot listing gallons of sanitizer as school supplies. Marketing ads have begun to embrace the confusion over the future by assuring customers that stores have them covered no matter what. A recent Walmart commercial shows students returning to school, but transitions between a day in the classroom and learning from home. This underlines the “cover all bases” approach that companies have taken during the recovery from the pandemic. These strategies will prove important as we move further into the heaviest shopping periods of the year. Early reports indicate that Black Friday shopping will be significantly altered as multiple retailers have announced plans to close on Thanksgiving and other retailers will likely follow suit. CSG’s CSR data from June predicted that we would still see an upward spending trend in November, but bumpy reopening plans may cause that peak to be significantly lower than previous years.

The cavalry may not be coming in the traditional shopping waves, but retailers and manufactures have come to expect the unexpected in 2020. Smart advertising campaigns and the diversification of products will keep consumers engaged and informed. Suppliers can use to help consumers find their products and should approach a wider variety of retail buyers to increase the distribution of their wares. COVID-19 has been a persistent opponent, but America will continue to prove its mettle.