Although school has been out only a couple of weeks in many parts of the U.S., back to school email campaigns have already started trickling into our inboxes.
Too soon, you say? No, because shoppers have already begun to fill their carts with school supplies, backpacks, clothing, electronics and everything the anxious college freshman needs for the perfect dorm-room home away from home.
Back-to-school/college is the second-biggest retail shopping event of the year, behind only Christmas/holiday. With billions at stake – yes, billions, not millions – retailers don’t want to miss out.
School shopping by the numbers
The National Retail Federation has not released its 2022 school spending projection yet. But, in 2021, it predicted Americans would spend a combined $37.1 billion to send kids back to school (grades K-12) and back to college.
- That’s a lot of notebooks, glue sticks and XL-twin bed sheets. However, in 2021, shoppers projected to spend $21 more on average on electronics compared to 2020 and $19 more on clothes.
- Per-student average spending in 2021 was projected at $848.90 for K-12 expenses and $1,200.32 for college.
Three opportunities for email marketers
Besides the sheer volume of spending, three forces make back to school email promotions more enticing at this point in the summer:
1. More online shopping:
In 2021, 48% of school shoppers and 43% of college shoppers said they planned to include online browsing or buying in the shopping mix. Although brick-and-mortar stores still rule, online shopping has been gaining ground every year that the NRF has conducted its survey.
Location tracker Foursquare also tracks back-to-school via foot traffic and found that all-in-one locations like department and big-box stores beat out malls, bookstores and other specialty retailers but both are slowly losing ground to online.
2. In stores now:
People are in the market already. The NRF’s 2021 consumer survey found that 51% of K-12 and college shoppers start browsing and buying two months or more ahead of time.
- However, more than 51% of all K-12 get going in earnest three weeks to a month before classes, probably about the time school districts release their supply lists.
- 39% say they took advantage of recent sale events such as Prime Day, Target Deal Days and Walmart’s Deals for Days to shop specifically for school items.
- Foursquare found that shopping for books, school supplies and sporting goods begins around now, in mid-July, clothing next, in early August, and big-ticket items like electronics last, just before most schools begin, in late August.
3. Re-engage one-time shoppers:
Many of your one-time or once-a-year shoppers likely are buying for back-to-school. Shoppers who signed up for your emails or bought school-related merch in summer might be ripe for special reactivation/re-engagement offers that redirect them back to a journey with your brand.
Back-to-school campaigns to follow
At this point in the summer, the number of back to school email campaigns is relatively light, but we are beginning to see trends emerging.
Below are several email campaigns with swipe- and test-worthy details. Given that the window for back-to-school shopping is still wide open, you have time to experiment, test and adjust.
1. Early birds get the deals
Sender: US Toy
Subject line: Beat the Crowds and Save on Back to School!
Preheader: Shop all the deals at our Back to School center.
US Toy was the first out of the gate with its back to school email, sending it on June 20, just about the time the last school buses were pulling out of parking lots in some school districts.
As with most campaigns sent this early in the season, the copy emphasizes speed and convenience, with savings as the secondary. The bulk product sizes also indicate that this offer is geared toward classroom teachers and institutions rather than families.
Subject line: School supplies for just 50¢? Don’t miss out!
A campaign like this is irresistible for families that outfit more than one student, and it has an enticing offer: Buy now, even if you don’t have an official school supply list.
- Parents who have bought supplies before have a good idea of what they’ll need, and the low price makes the gamble worthwhile.
- Staples also organizes its products well in the email. It creates a virtual department, like the one in the store, and brands this collection consistently as its “Back to School Center.”
2. Turn shopping into an event.
K-12 shopping focuses on first-day-of-school outfits and classroom supplies. College shopping is more like a “furnish your first home” event. Smart retailers treat it that way, attracting early shoppers with in-store events designed to build interest and spur sales.
Even if your brand isn’t top of mind for back-to-school, you might have some housing-friendly products that you could promote for new or returning students.
Sender: Bed Bath & Beyond
Subject line: Campus Ready: Your 20% offer is here. Plus check out our NEW college catalog!
Preheader: Check out our College Catalog!
BB&B has the whole college-outfitting thing down to a science, which you can see from the email above. Instead of a hard product sell, it spotlights its extensive catalog and highlights its services, which also are its competitive differences, such as the “buy it here, pick it up at school option.”
The product promos will come later; this service-oriented opening email sets the tone for the entire back-to-school event. Plus, the content and design are consistent between digital (email and web) and its direct-mail flyers.
Subject line: Don’t miss the IKEA College Life Your Way Event
Preheader: Shop three days of deals, giveaways and more
IKEA’s college event takes a slightly different tack from Bed Bath & Beyond, because its promo is for an in-store event but also features product promotions.
This could be tactical, designed to broaden the appeal to non-college buyers because some of the pieces in the promotion would appeal to recent graduates furnishing their first apartments.
3. Remember the personality.
The three campaigns below couldn’t be more different, but they share one common thing: They all maintain their brand voice and personality.
For marketers, the takeaway here is to create interest not just with the usual parade of products but also by incorporating what’s unique about your brand into the email as well.
Subject line: They’re here! Back-to-school styles
Preheader: Give back when you go back: Shop the collection
TOMS’ emails combine social activism with commerce, tuned to the theme of each email. This back-to-school email features a child’s photo and school-related artwork along with products that could be but aren’t exclusively for students.
Sender: American Science & Surplus
Subject line: Back to the Party School Sale!
And now for something completely different …
Did you do a double-take when you read the subject line? We did, too, and that’s probably exactly what the fiendishly clever minds behind these emails intended.
Instead of pounding out yet another email full of the usual school supplies, AS&S takes what looks like an odd assortment of things and turns them into dorm-room must-haves. (Whoopee cushions and disco balls? Why not?) Be sure to click the email to view it full size so you can read the top copy block. Somebody had fun writing that.
4. Re-engage your once-a-year shoppers.
As we noted earlier, you might have a sizable segment of shoppers who bought from you once at back-to-school time. If they ignore your emails the rest of the year, try to get their attention with a special offer tied to their interests, like the one below.
Sender: Pottery Barn Kids
Subject line: Back-to-school list – must-haves
Preheader: Save on ALL backpacks, lunch bags, desks & more.
This email in our archives tacks a win-back/reactivation program onto its regular back-to-school campaign.
5. Other memorable campaigns
Sender: Fry’s Electronics
Subject line: Get Your Tech on During our Giant Back-to-School Sale!
We picked this one so you can see the call-to-action button. “Tap Here” speaks to mobile shoppers, and the size is guaranteed to avoid fat-finger tapping mistakes … but you’ll have to click on the email to view it full size in our archive to see what else is unique about it. (No registration needed to view the email, but it’s fast and free, so why not?).
Discussion question: Would you test this in your own email? Why or why not? (Use the comment box below to share your thoughts.)
Subject line: August Newsletter: Recipes, crafts and inspiration for back to school, birthdays and more
Preheader: Win back-to-school season with a little help from Hallmark. Thanks for subscribing to our email.
How can you get aboard the back-to-school train if you don’t run a business that sells typical school merchandise? Take a cue from Hallmark’s newsletter, which uses content marketing to promote back-to-school, even though Hallmark itself isn’t a typical destination store for school supplies.
6. Subject lines we liked:
- 6pm: Back-to-School Preview Sale! (Comment: good for early season; would get lost once the frenzy begins)
- Academy: Get Your Head Start on Back to School! (Comment: Speaks to parents looking to get the grind of school shopping over early)
- ASICS America: Start Fresh: Head Back To School In Style. (Comment: Everybody likes a fresh start.
- Express: This jacket = Back-to-school perfection (Comment: This subject line = aspiration + economy of words)
- Target: 99¢ school supplies & more school deals end today. (Comment: Detail-rich wording can distinguish it from all of the “Shop Back to School Today” emails competing for attention in your inbox in August).