A smiling family, including a child being held by the father, looks at a colorful backpack inside a store.

How retailers can make the most of back-to-school shopping

Thursday, August 17, 2023

It’s still warm enough out for cannonballs and campfires, but summer is winding down and school is starting up — and parents everywhere are rushing to check off supply lists.

After Black Friday, Cyber Monday and winter holidays, back-to-school shopping is one of the busiest seasons for retailers. 

Last year, American households spent $36.9 billion on back-to-school shopping for students in kindergarten through 12th grade and an average of $1,600 per student for those starting or returning to college.

Classes usually kick off between mid-August until after Labor Day, so now is a great time to learn how to make the most of your back-to-school shopping offerings.

Buyers will be looking for everything from backpacks and lunchboxes to apparel, footwear, electronics and dorm furnishings. If you don’t usually sell these items, don’t fret — you won’t flunk out of this opportunity to boost your revenue and grow your customer base. Just use the suggestions and ideas below to see how you can get involved and make the 2023-2024 back-to-school shopping season the best yet for your business.

Here for back-to-school shopping tips for retailers? Class is now in session.

A smiling mom holds a white shirt up to her son as they look at their reflection in the mirror, which is just out of frame.

5 ways to prepare for back-to-school season

As summer fades and school begins, some parents are harried and some are giddy. Some students are nervous and some are thrilled. However your customers are feeling, now you’ve got a toolkit to help make their back-to-school shopping experience one for the books.

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Stock up on sure-thing supplies

It’s a good idea to have all your inventory ordered, entered, tagged and displayed by early July. To help pick the right products, use your retail point of sale to review the previous year’s data: which items were bestsellers, and which ones didn’t quite meet the mark? Then, research current national trends and scout requirements for the schools in your community. If you sell traditional school supplies like notebooks and colored pencils, keep the local schools’ shopping lists on hand when you’re buying inventory. Be sure you stick to the specifics to keep customers happy and avoid returns. Once you know precisely what to stock, the fun begins!

Since back-to-school shopping can last around eight weeks, you may need to continue adding new inventory throughout July and August to meet demand. When you use a solution with real-time insights, item reordering and inventory adjustments, you’ll be ready to serve everyone — from early birds to latecomers.

Inventory management systems can accurately forecast, reduce waste and improve your bottom line, helping you set your customers up for success in the classroom, on the field and everywhere in between.

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Stand out among all the noise

Halfway through summer, you can hardly hear a streaming ad, see a social media post or drive by a big box store without being inundated with back-to-school messaging. And while traditional advertising methods might be loud, there are plenty of ways you can reach customers to promote new inventory, specials and discounts that don’t involve a giant billboard. 

Website: To capture customers online, tag products with relevant keywords and add a back-to-school category to your online store’s menu. Even if you don’t have ecommerce functionality, you can still create a basic landing page to alert shoppers who visit your website that new school arrivals are in.

Social media: A majority of your back-to-school customers are probably busy parents rushing from work to summer camp pickup to bedtime. Once they’re finally relaxing on the sofa scrolling their favorite social apps, it’s your chance to reel them in. Shoppable content is convenient and efficient, allowing them to browse and buy directly from their phones.

Email: Whether you use Photoshop or Canva, you can create branded shopping guides to send to subscribers showcasing everything from standard graph paper to just-for-fun glittery gel pens.

However you decide to communicate, there are several ways to catch your audience’s attention: color, humor and examples of ways shoppers can use your products go a long way.

If you sell lunchboxes, you could create a carousel post giving tired parents easy meal ideas alongside images of your insulated lunch bags. Or, if you sell electronics, you could make a video mini-series with setup tips to help college students get up and running fast. 

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Prepare your store for the rush

Once you’ve ordered inventory and advertised your offerings, it’s time to get your staff and systems ready. The back-to-school frenzy can be a bit hectic, so parents and caregivers are looking for effortless convenience.

Throughout the season, you’ll want to be sure you have plenty of employees on hand to greet and assist customers, ring up transactions and process online orders.

Next, make sure your POS is primed for speed and ease. Offering a quick, easy checkout in-store, online or on the go with debit, credit, ACH and mobile payment acceptance reduces instances of long lines and abandoned carts. Modern payment options benefit you and your customers, but there are other things to consider to enhance your customers’ shopping experience.

If your POS and staff can accommodate it, delight busy customers by offering buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) shopping and local delivery around town. Delivering 3rd grade school supplies straight to mom’s office? Now you’re talking. 

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Maximize revenue potential

From window displays to dressing room mirrors and everywhere in between, every spot in your store is an opportunity to draw customers in and present them with the items they need and want.

When you’re displaying back-to-school inventory, consider how product placement, customer behavior and traffic flow will influence purchasing decisions. You can optimize displays with relevant decorations, like apple-shaped balloons or garlands adorned with school buses and pencils. Consider setting up an Instagram-worthy photo opp for parents who want to commemorate the occasion with a photo snap.

Even if you typically only sell clothing and accessories, back-to-school is a good time to consider carrying special add-ons such as jewel-toned highlighters and floral-bedecked stationery. While elementary students usually can’t deviate from the standard school supply list of crayons and binders, high schoolers and college kids are all in. Place these items in cute baskets in high-impulse areas, like at the cashwrap, and watch your sales soar. 

If you operate an office supply store, on the other hand, you can use must-buy essentials to draw shoppers in then direct their attention to fun extras like artsy spiral planners and decorative laptop sleeves to capture those on-a-whim buys.

Keeping your store organized, easy to navigate and with ample room to move around will encourage customers to browse leisurely and effectively.

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Consider discounts and freebies

According to a survey from the National Retail Federation (NRF), around 80% of back-to-school shoppers expect higher prices when shopping for supplies this year. Everyone – from consumers to small business owners – are feeling the current inflation landscape, so it’s no surprise that buyers may be leery and hoping for, or expecting, a deal.

If you’re in the position to offer discounts or promotional gifts, customers would be happy to score:

  • Coupons and promo codes

  • Bundles or kits with bulk pricing

  • Buy one, get one free (BOGO) deals on uniforms and footwear

  • Pre-sale savings for customers in your loyalty program

  • Contests and giveaways in-store or on social media

  • Free shipping (everyone’s two favorite words!)

If you’re feeling thrifty this year, you could offer free shipping with a minimum purchase – rather than for any purchase – which could increase small orders while providing the checkout savings consumers have come to expect (ahem, Amazon). 

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Keep in mind, many consumers looking to save money do a lot of their back-to-school spending during tax-free weekends and tax holidays — a great time to extend savings without impacting your bottom line. Ideally, your POS will let you easily toggle to disable sales tax on any order during the particular tax-free dates for your state.

Don’t forget the teachers!

There are several things you can do to thank educators and staff as they prepare for another school year — and that includes special pricing at the register. Whether they’re purchasing new outfits, supplies for their classrooms or items to make their day-to-day easier, consider:

  • A just-for-teachers loyalty program

  • A one day sale with giveaways and refreshments

  • Referral discounts and incentives

Additionally, if you run a restaurant, you could thank teachers for their dedication with vouchers for free brewed coffee during the first week or waive the delivery fee on their first lunch delivery order of the school year.

An optometrist helps a young girl with a glasses fitting while her father looks on.

How to cash in on back-to-school shopping — even if you don’t sell school supplies

Back-to-school isn’t just for supply stores, uniform shops and clothing boutiques. Many businesses can benefit from this mid-year revenue boost:

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Sporting goods stores

Be sure you’re stocked up on apparel, sports and health equipment and fitness accessories. Parents may be looking for football cleats while teachers may be in the market for activity trackers. Follow the tips above to manage your inventory, and review your sales analytics from previous years to check if you can swing discounted merchandise to attract consumers.

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Optometrist offices

As the school year begins and appointments begin filling up, consider rewarding early bookers with discounted eye exams. Have clients with big families who have multiple eyewear needs? A BOGO promo could help them get outfitted for the year without tanking their savings.

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Gift shops

Your shop may be filled with pretty trinkets that don’t exactly match school supply requirements, but don’t count yourself out just yet. Use social media and email marketing to remind shoppers of all the unique finds you have for teacher gifts. You could even create big ticket items, like pre-filled gift baskets brimming with notebooks, fountain pens, coffee mugs and chocolates. 

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Furniture stores

For those heading off to college, there’s a laundry list of things to bring: sheets and pillowcases, bedside lamps, mini trash cans, bath towels and so on. (Somehow Animal House posters always make the cut despite never being on the official checklist.) Your bread and butter might be beds, desks and sofas, but plan to stock up on some of the aforementioned items for July through September. After all, you never know if the family who picked up sheets and towels for their freshmen’s dorm will be back two years later to help furnish the off-campus rental. 

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Parents and caregivers moving their kiddos into a musty dorm room may spring for one last good meal before all the on-campus dining begins, and that’s where your eatery comes in. To attract new diners and introduce them to your concept, take advantage of proximity-based marketing and consider having “move-in weekend” specials. 

For families with elementary and middle school-aged students, offer back-to-school shopping promotions in partnership with a nearby local retailer such as free dessert when a same-day receipt from the neighborhood shop is presented.

A woman sits at a laptop in a tidy office and is making a phone call on her cell phone.

Do your homework for A+ results

Depending when you’re reading this, you may be in the throes of back-to-school shopping or eagerly anticipating what you’ll order for the coming school year as winter turns to spring.

Either way, there are a few ideas here to help you make the next back-to-school sales period an A+ experience for you and your customers.

Maybe you don’t currently offer BOPIS or have an eCommerce site. But, a survey from 2021 shows over 50% of consumers will check for in-stock inventory online before going into a store, and 38% expect to utilize BOPIS shopping. 

Not only do consumers prefer an omnichannel shopping experience, it’s said retailers who don’t sell on multiple channels can miss out on up to 30% of sales

While you may not be optimizing your point of sale now, it’s a worthy investment for the next back-to-school shopping season and beyond.

We hope you’ve found our back-to-school shopping tips for retailers useful. While we’re on the subject, we encourage you to learn more about Heartland’s point of sale solutions, which offers easy-as-123 setup and in-depth insights to inform inventory decisions, reward customers and grow your revenue. 

The right POS can give you the data you need to inform buying decisions, help make marketing easier and even improve your purchasing experience at market

If your point of sale can’t do all that (and then some), it’s time to think about switching your POS. You’ll be prepared for the next back-to-school season, holiday shopping and every day in between.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this document does not, and is not intended to constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available are for general informational purposes only. Information provided may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information, and readers of this information should contact their attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular legal matter, in the relevant jurisdiction. All liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on the contents here are hereby expressly disclaimed.

Heartland is the point of sale, payments and payroll solution of choice for entrepreneurs that need human-centered technology to sell more, keep customers coming back and spend less time in the back office. Nearly 1,000,000 businesses trust us to guide them through market changes and technology challenges, so they can stay competitive and focus on building remarkable businesses instead of managing the daily grind. Learn more at heartland.us