Back-to-school 2020 means face masks, home-school tech and childhood-bedroom makeovers

Ongoing state lockdowns have not halted spending, but have diverted funds toward unexpected categories.

Face masks and comfy fleece separates that look like pajamas are two of the items featured in Old Navy’s new, back-to-school commercial. Over at Bed Bath & Beyond, college-age kids are the target and the retailer is encouraging them to redecorate their childhood bedrooms for Zoom school.

It’s a back-to-school season that looks like no other, with states in various phases of lockdown and teachers and families debating whether it’s safe to return to the classrooms.

That doesn’t mean that shopping and retail marketing is grinding to a close. The National Retail Federation estimated that families would spend a record $33.9 billion in 2020 and crush 2019’s sales of $26.2 billion, in its Annual 2020 Back-to-School/Spending Survey. Computers will drive these sales.

As hot products shifted from new backpacks and lunch bags to home-schooling tech, marketers are processing the gamut of 2020 seasonal retail, from staycations this summer through the forthcoming holiday season.

“Remember ‘Summer 2020’? It wasn’t about barbeques or cruises or cool Airbnb digs. But there was still a lot of summer activity that happened,” said Hillary Haley, Ph.D., SVP, executive director, behavioral science at RPA. “If you look at things through a different lens, summer this year was big — but not in the normal way. This year it was about things like baking and crafting, cool gardening hacks, inflatable pools and unearthing the old sewing machine. Summer still happened, it was just different.”

Haley, who leads a team of data scientists and market researchers at RPA, sees the same thing happening for back-to-school 2020. “Parents are spending. And there is opportunity for marketers. The more marketers can speak to ‘the new face of back-to-school,’ the better.”

Old Navy is broadening the definition of back-to-school by featuring at-home and on-campus outfits in a new spot by The Martin Agency. The commercial’s hyped-up jingle starts, “I got new jeans, and some new fleece. New school year, whatever that means.” To underscore that point, there are a couple of quick cuts of children wearing Old Navy facemasks.

The chain also is extending the school-shopping season until October, not only to push new fall shipments but also reaching kids whose schools may reopen after a remote start.

Bed Bath & Beyond’s College from Home campaign includes a website and partnership with Decorist, the online, interior-design service, to show students how to transform their childhood bedrooms into sophisticated, remote-learning spaces.

The NRF’s projected tech boom has drawn out an advertiser that isn’t known for promotional advertising. Apple is offering free AirPods with the purchase of specified Macs or iPads, along with “education pricing,” such as $200 savings and discounts on AppleCare service.

“To put things in concrete terms, when we are talking about “school supplies” in 2020, we aren’t just talking about Trapper Keepers (zippered binders) and new tennis shoes,” said RPA’s Haley. “We are talking about dining room tables, family printers and the weekly grocery bill. There is a total redefinition here of what back-to-school means. It’s about the family’s plan for the fall, not just shopping lists for the kiddos.”

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