The Analyst Team

August 10, 2021

Navigating the next phase of Back-to-School

BTS shopping habits and retailers' assortments have changed. EDITED analyzes standout back-to-school campaigns and opportunities for the future.

Whether schools reopen or not, Back-to-School shopping habits and retailers' assortment are looking different, with Deloitte reporting spending expected to grow by 16% YoY

Even without the hangover of a global pandemic, this is a notoriously tricky event for brands to nail. With the challenges of digital learning still present, we’ve rounded up a market read to help retailers win the Back-to-School (BTS) period.

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What are retailers communicating?

The top messages

Images via Matalan Email UK - Jul 29, 2021; George at ASDA Email UK - Jul 24, 2021; Carter's Email US - Jul 16, 2021; J.Crew Email US - Jul 14, 2021

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Images via Geox Email UK - Jul 20, 2021; Zulily Email UK - Jul 12, 2021; Gap Email US - Jul 4, 2021; Footasylum Email UK - Jun 5, 2021

Standout campaigns

  • SHEIN - BTS $1,000 challenge: The retailer encouraged consumer engagement by offering five customers the chance of winning a $200 gift code when they uploaded their favorite SHEIN school outfits. Campaign imagery tapped into the Dark Academia and Golfcore subcultures.

  • Foot Locker - FLX Membership: School-themed emails sent throughout July were anchored by a banner at the header, promoting BTS rewards for customers in its FLX membership program. Deals included sweepstakes, shopping spree raffles and free shipping.

  • The Children's Place - giving back: The retailer has shared a variety of school-themed Instagram posts, including a prize giveaway and a promotion for payment service Afterpay. It has committed to donating $1mn worth of clothing to the charity Baby2Baby.

  • Nutmeg - price consistency across ages: The supermarket brand has drawn on the value proposition of its school uniform range on all its Instagram posts. It offers children's clothing at the same price for all ages, stating, "kids grow, our prices don't."

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Images via Instagram - SHEIN; Kids Foot Locker Email US - Jun 29, 2021; Instagram - The Children's Place; Instagram - Nutmeg

Retailers increase sustainability credentials

With back-to-school one of the most significant shopping events of the year, the category is witnessing an emphasis on the sustainability of uniforms and related clothing and accessories. Several retailers are expanding their eco offerings in school assortments, predominantly through organic cotton and recycled fabrics. Marks & Spencer and John Lewis both stated that their products are more sustainable this year.

What eco fabrics are brands investing in?

  • John Lewis & Partners' shoes contain recycled linings and foam insoles. Recycled polyester that is GRS certified is utilized across trousers, skirts, shorts and tunics. Product descriptions reference that styles are now "more sustainable than ever." Cotton is responsibly sourced and part of the Better Cotton Initiative.

  • George at ASDA uses recycled polyester from plastic bottles and textile waste across items, including cardigans, skirts and trousers. Responsibly sourced viscose comes from protected forests, while all cotton is part of the Better Cotton Initiative.

  • Gap stocks 100% organic cotton polo shirts. Lunch bags and backpacks are made from 60% and 70% recycled polyester, respectively.

  • H&M's jersey joggers and polo shirts are produced from organic cotton; however, not all its school uniform sits in its Conscious Collection.

Retailer spotlight - Marks & Spencer

The school uniform stalwart launched its most sustainable back-to-school collection to date in July in response to rising customer demand for more conscious choice. The retailer has moved to solely using organic cotton across all knitwear, jersey, and sweats. Sustainably sourced viscose and trims are being introduced, along with more recycled polyester compared to previous years. The hero piece of the range is its polo shirt, crafted from organic cotton and recycled threads and buttons. Looking at Marks & Spencer's school uniform mix with the keywords organic and recycled, there are currently 53% more eco options retailing vs. the same period in 2020.

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Images via Marks & Spencer

Top level analysis of the UK value market

• Five of our eight analyzed retailers showed assortments dominated by investment in the tops category. Polo shirts were of particular interest and highlighted an area of expansion suitable for established schoolwear stockists and non-uniform retailers alike.

• Peacocks stood as the only retailer to dedicate a majority of its arrivals to hosiery and footwear. The seasonal ambiguity of such categories and lack of BTS promotions online suggests the retailer may be holding back on more specific purchases until closer to the start of the new school year.

• Pricing strategies see a 50/50 split between retailers who increase the ticket price of products in line with age and those opting for a consistent price regardless of SKU. School uniform prices have seen enhanced press attention recently, following the introduction of the Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill in April 2021, which will set guidelines for schools to follow regarding uniform requirements and inclusive pricing.

• Currently, the proportion of school ranges featuring advertised discounts is low, peaking at M&Co where 7% of in stock products are reduced. Market entry prices for the retailers analyzed started at just £1.00 for school face masks. Meanwhile, an average price across retailers of £7.74 further explained the lack of prices slashes and drew parallels with the value focus across email communications.

• Supermarket chain ALDI drew interest with its recent "Specialbuy Event," promoting a £4.50 bundle - a combination of two polo shirts (£1.75), a sweatshirt (£1.00) and either trousers or a skirt (both £1.75) for children aged three to eleven. This package stands unmatched by our seven other value retailers, with the most competitive entry prices for similar products at George at ASDA and Matalan.

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What's selling?

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Images via Matalan and Tu Clothing at Sainsbury

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Images via Matalan and The Children's Place

New opportunities

Tackle the comfort crusade: Consider adaptive & inclusive clothing

While retailers continue to acknowledge the campaign for comfort within schoolwear through fabric technology and fit, considerations for those with requirements outside of mainstream offerings are quickly becoming an area of interest. George at ASDA recently launched its Easy On Easy Wear line in the UK, supplying schoolwear for young individuals with sensory-sensitive requirements like autism. Across the water, US retailer JCPenney unveiled its "most inclusive kids' brand ever" Thereabouts™, in July. The range includes back-to-school essentials suitable for children with disabilities, featuring design details like sensory-friendly seams and easy-access openings, alongside sizing for plus and husky shoppers.

Womenswear has seen the development of period-proof underwear, providing a more eco-friendly solution to single-use sanitary products. Sustainability benefits aside, this area resonates equally with young females - consider integrating leak-free linings within trousers or tights sets.

Expand into schoolwear: Choose non-uniform options

Look to the non-uniform assortments of retailers like SHEIN and Gap, who employ a core assortment of formal pieces during the back-to-school period as a way to identify with the lucrative promotional event. For those with existing formal ranges, trial core shapes like cardigans, polo shirts and block color sweatshirts in muted tones as part of BTS communications.

Consider targeting age groups that don't require uniforms (often, pre-school/nursery students are allowed to wear their own clothes, but will still require simple items for repetitive wear) a low-ticket capsule wardrobe with the option to mix and match would work well here.

Contributions by Retail Analysts, Katherine Bailey and Katharine Carter.

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