The back-to-school season is a big one: according to the National Retail Federation, it will reach around $68 billion this year. Even if you don’t sell pencils, it’s tempting to want to grab a piece of the pie. But is it worth your small business marketing dollars to try to win some of these back-to-school shoppers?

Facts About Back-to-School Shopping

The back-to-school season starts early, with at least 25% of K-12 parents saying they begin researching and shopping by early July. Parents of K-12 and college-bound kids will spend between $600 and $900 per student, on average.

However, despite the dollars flying around, on everything from notebooks to clothes, electronics, dorm furnishings, and convenience items, there’s a downward trend in the back-to-school season. There are fewer shoppers predicted this year, and most families will be spending less per student than last year. It’s still a huge shopping season, but small business owners need to remember what these shoppers want most: the lowest possible prices. For 61% of back-to-school shoppers, sales and promotions are a top decision factor; 74% will seek good deals over prioritizing shopping at small businesses; and at least 64% will shop at mass retailers.

Small Businesses and Back-to-School Shopping

Is it worth the effort, then, for a small business to do back-to-school marketing? To find out, ask yourself these two important questions about your small business.

1. Does my primary product/service fit into back-to-school (or back-to-college) needs?

2. Can I offer what back-to-school shoppers want?

Criteria 1: The Product/Service Fit

Back-to-school shopping includes school clothes, which may be uniforms or seasonally appropriate, new clothing to wear to school. School supplies, of course, are a big part of the list, as well as electronics and, for the college crowd, dorm or apartment furnishings. Also pertinent: snack and lunch supplies, personal care items, and sports gear.

In order to benefit from back-to-school marketing, your small business’ primary offers must relate to back-to-school needs. Parents have a long list of required items and, often, not much budget left for extras; those buying for multiple children face even greater financial stress, meaning that they’ll be less likely to notice or care about clever gimmicks for non-essential items.

However, if you can present your offer as a back-to-school essential, you might win the sales. Car maintenance, for example, is important for keeping the carpool line going for K-12 parents and keeping college-bound students and new teen drivers safe. Easy meals make short weeknights, filled with homework and school activities, better for the whole family. Think about how your products and services can give parents and students the convenience, fun, and savings that they want.

If your product or service really does not relate, it’s probably not worth your dollars to attempt to sell to shoppers based on their assumed extravagance this time of year.

Criteria 2: The Back-to-School Shopper Priorities

Back-to-school shoppers are looking for four things: low prices, high quality, saved time, and more fun. Price matters, quality matters, convenience matters, and it’s nice when businesses make back-to-school shopping enjoyable.

Generally speaking, race-to-the-bottom prices are dangerous for small businesses when competing with mass retailers. Even if you can offer the lowest prices on essential back-to-school items, is that how you want to win customers? Fighting for the lowest-price status often means winning the lowest-profit position.

Instead of promoting the lowest prices, can you offer high quality, convenience, or a fun shopping experience? If so, you might be able to win some back-to-school shoppers. You can put together packages that create convenience for shoppers, promote delivery services, include free shipping, or offer personalized shopping assistance, free snacks and entertainment for kids while parents shop, and special extended hours for back-to-school shoppers.

Just don’t forget that, for most back-to-school shoppers, the highest priority is getting the lowest prices. If you can, go ahead and fit back-to-school themes into your normal marketing expenditures. If it makes sense for your business, there’s no harm in reaching out to the back-to-school crowd. If, however, you’ll need to put in extra effort and dollars to win back-to-school shoppers, it might be better to save your marketing dollars for the bigger holiday shopping season.

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