Back-to-school shopping means big sales. But how have retailers been handling the rush?

Back to school shopping

Sharpen your new pencils – a new term has begun.

For retailers, this marks the end of their second biggest sales season: back-to-school shopping. This year, despite worries around inflation, retailers were set to enjoy record takings, with the National Retail Federation predicting consumers would spend $41.5 billion on back-to-school shopping in the US.

Enjoyment may be the wrong word, however, when it comes to logistics. The back-to-school sales rush is a time of huge opportunity but if a retailer doesn’t have the right operational mechanisms in place, it’s also a chance for them to frustrate customers and tank business reputation. Fail to deliver products quickly and efficiently – in time for the first day of school – and you jeopardise your customer relationships.

How shopping is shifting

It may be a year of record-breaking back-to-school sales but the strain of inflation is still shaping shopping.

A recent Deloitte US survey found parents are looking to economise and that they’re shifting their focus towards necessary school supplies and away from apparel and tech. With prices of US school supplies increasing 23.7% over the past two years, consumers are seeking competitive pricing from retailers: 80% prefer shopping with mass merchants for their back-to-school shopping and 60% with online retailers. Although 88% are willing to spend a minimum amount to quality for free shipping, this shipping threshold needs to be low, and returns should be free – 6 in 10 (59%) will only shop at retailers offering free returns. However, back-to-school activity is still showing signs of growth: 2023 Salesforce data shows a 1% YoY growth rate in US back-to-school ecommerce.

There’s also the age of shoppers to consider. Millennials, raising Generation Alpha, are representing a growing proportion of back-to-school shoppers and so retailers must take their specific tastes and priorities into account. Recent research from parcelLab into Gen Z and Millennial US shoppers found that 91% of Millennials prefer to shop online rather than in

physical stores yet over a third (35%) would be turned off making a repeat purchase by a lack of free shipping, with the same percentage put off by having to pay for a return. And there’s an appetite for back-to-school deals: 1 in 5 Millennials would wait for back-to-school dates in the hopes that something they wanted would be on sale or discounted.

Back-to-school challenges

Enticing customers with special offers and deals is just one part of the back-to-school challenge. Another significant hurdle is satisfying them with delivery. This not only revolves around building free shipping offers and free returns into your business model, but also delivering packages in a smooth and efficient manner. In a world where food and grocery apps let users track their couriers in real-time down their street, non-communication around delivery is no longer an option for retailers. It’s particularly crucial during the back-to-school season when families expect more visibility as they navigate summer trips, child schedules and growing shopping lists.

Current delivery systems aren’t cutting it. According to research published by Citizens Advice in March 2022, 86% of adults in Britain had bought something online in the last 3 months yet 69% of these experienced a delivery-related problem with their purchase, from having to stay home for their delivery, a parcel or arriving late, being left in an insecure location or not arriving at all. On the Citizens Advice’ new parcel company league table, no delivery company received more than 3 out of 5 stars overall. 

Many retailers are abandoning customers to these frustrating experiences. A 2022 parcelLab study of the UK’s top 200 online retailers found that 79% effectively ignored their customers during delivery (leaving communication, if any, entirely to the carrier), 16% of tracking pages displayed an error message and 81% did not send out branded or personalised communication. This means the post-purchase experience is too often clunky, disjointed, and infuriating for customers.

How to come top of the class

Many retailers may currently fail to make the grade but there are many opportunities to improve. And if they can smooth out the post-purchase experience, they’ll rise above competitors to the top of the class.

Investing in the post-purchase experience is a key part of this. Committing to post-purchase communication is crucial, so customers are proactively informed about their delivery and returns journey. Messages should be customised with personalised content that makes customers feel invaluable, not an inconvenience, and retailers now have the option to deliver these across a variety of channels, from email, SMS, Messenger or via an app. A branded tracking page is also important – and one that is seamlessly integrated with logistics systems so no ‘error’ messages are displayed due to data delays.

Retailers that go the extra mile in the last mile will be choosing tech that allows them to predict delivery delays and pass on this information to their customers. Businesses may not be able to control the weather or customs waits but they can control their response. Respecting consumers’ time by keeping them in the loop about delays, and allowing them to adjust their own plans, helps subdue delivery irritation and demonstrates genuine customer care. Keeping customers proactively informed also cuts down the number of delivery queries the customer services team receives. Predictive delivery technology can also increase conversions. If retailers add a reliable estimated time of arrival (that cites a specific date, rather than a generic number of business days), this encourages consumers to add to their cart and reduces cart abandonment.

As back-to-school shopping draws to a close, retailers of every size need to honestly reflect on their processes. How easy have they made the customer journey, right through to package delivery and returns? What post-purchase feedback are they receiving? Making these observations, and taking immediate action to address them will be crucial as we gear up for the sales season that eclipses even the school rush: Christmas.