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Retail trends for back-to-school 2020: Focus on safety, sales & steady engagement

For retailers, back-to-school season has long been a major marketing and sales opportunity. And for many kids, the joyful experience of back-to-school shopping makes the end of summer sting a little less. 2020, however, has been markedly different in many ways—meaning back-to-school season this year will look different as well.

This year, the retail industry has faced major economic setbacks due to COVID-19, with sales falling by 16.4% in April in the U.S. As stores and states begin to reopen, sales are starting to bounce back. In May, retail sales surged by 17.7%, showing that there is still an appetite for shopping, which is good news for retailers as the back-to-school season approaches.

Given concerns about social distancing requirements and in-store safety, retailers need to give consumers clarity on how they’ve adjusted the shopping experience and instill confidence in their back-to-school offerings—whether school will be in-person or online.

To understand how COVID-19 has changed consumers’ interactions with retailers on social media and what that means for brands’ back-to-school strategies, we turned to social data.

Sprout’s data science team analyzed more than 9,100 social profiles across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn to explore retailer and consumer behavior between January 1, 2019 June 30, 2020. We also leveraged social listening for additional insights into consumers’ expectations of retailers, their concerns and what they care about most when back-to-school shopping. Read on to learn about the trends we uncovered and how your brand can use data to drive your back-to-school approach.

Looking back on the 2019 back-to-school season

In 2019, June and July were the busiest months for retailers on social. The average number of unique social posts retailers sent daily reached 19.56 in June and peaked at 24 in July. Combined, those months represented a 54% increase in content published compared to the rest of the year.

Not only were brands posting more often during those months, but they were also actively engaging with their audience more. Across all industry segments, retailers’ average number of outbound engagements (e.g. comments, Retweets and replies by a brand) in June and July was 63% higher than the rest of 2019.

Consumer engagement on retailers’ social content also peaked during those months, up 53% compared to the rest of the year across all segments. This was especially true for enterprise retailers, which saw a 74% increase.

Whether consumers engage by simply liking content, asking product-related questions or commenting about recent purchases, this influx of engagement gives brands an opportunity to shape their strategy and optimize back-to-school campaigns based on consumer feedback, wants and needs.

Summer is a time of high activity both on social and in day-to-day life. People take vacations and travel more frequently, spend more time outdoors, go camping and more. While people may not be partaking in these kinds of summer plans as much this year, the activities people do engage in will still dictate the products and services they seek.

Typically, back-to-school begins to take off in July and continue into August and September, but connecting with your audience around their summer activities early on helps to lay the foundation for receptivity and engagement with your back-to-school campaigns.

In July 2019, Bose launched a summertime sweepstakes campaign that called on their fans to share photos of the way they’re spending their summer using the hashtag #MyBose. The content generated a huge swell of UGC from people looking to “amplify their summer.”

One month later, Bose shared their back-to-school deals. With discounts on their products,  students could keep listening to the soundtrack of their summer.

Leading up to back-to-school 2020

From January to mid-May this year, the conversation around retail within the context of COVID-19 generated over 6.1 million social mentions across 2.6 million unique authors in Sprout Listening’s Featured Topic. The sheer volume of social messages shows that there are a lot of questions and curiosity about how retailers are navigating the pandemic. These questions are particularly important for retailers to address on social as they approach the back-to-school season.

While many brands paused their ad campaigns or publishing calendars during the first half of 2020, retailers remained relatively consistent in terms of daily content volume. And yet, consumer engagement with retailers took off during this time. The average number of engagements retailers received on posts the same day they were published increased by 40% in Q2 2020 compared to Q2 2019.

As consumers reach out more often, it’s more important than ever that retailers’ social teams are serving as the front lines of customer care. In Q2 2020, retailers saw a 72% increase in the average number of daily inbound messages compared to Q2 2019. Mid-market retailers, in particular, saw an 88% increase in inbound messages during the second quarter of 2020 compared to the same quarter in 2019.

Knowing that retailers published the most social content in June and July last year, they will likely be fighting for share of voice going into back-to-school season more than ever. Brands will need to continue balancing the increase in engagements and messages, while also sharing high volumes of relevant messaging around consumers’ back-to-school plans and expectations in the current climate.

Brands also need to be mindful of which platforms their customers are using to engage with them. While every brand’s audience is different, in the first half of 2020 retailers received the highest average inbound comments per day on Instagram, followed by Facebook and Twitter, making it important for brands to be present, active and responsive on these platforms.

While it’s unclear exactly what’s in store for brands and consumers as businesses and schools reopen, people are still planning for the future. According to Pinterest’s SVP of technology, speaking to the National Retail Federation in May, “Last month, for instance, there was a 60% increase in the number of boards created compared with last year, and engagement with boards is up nearly 75% year over year.”

While Pinterest honed in on users building and engaging with boards, Sprout’s data found that retailers are posting significantly more Pins. In the first half of 2020, Pins shared by retailers increased by 104% YoY and Pins reposted by them increased by 84% YoY.

Pinterest is incredibly popular among parents, teachers and millenials, especially when it comes to planning and seeking shopping inspiration. In preparation for back-to-school 2020, retailers can share product-focused, forward-looking content that inspires consumers to plan and shop for the future—not just on Pinterest, but across all platforms.


Key takeaways for back-to-school success on social

As the back-to-school season approaches, retailers have an opportunity to connect with their customers like never before. The increase in inbound engagements and messages in 2020 to date shows that people are seeking out content from retailers and looking to them for information, guidance and reassurance.

The expectations of brands are much higher than they used to be. Quickly and effectively responding to followers, bringing customer insights from social to marketing leaders and using those insights to stay nimble will be crucial.

Developing a social strategy that focuses on what consumers care about most will not only build trust but also make them feel more connected to your brand. Connection converts into website visits, purchases, recommendations to friends and family and a competitive advantage. Here are our top three takeaways for retailers to ace this back-to-school season.

Stay relevant by listening to changing conversation trends

The start of the 2020 school year is still to be decided in many areas, and consumers are expressing their concerns on social. Listen to them, keep an eye on local and regional plans and tailor your content accordingly. According to the Sprout Social Index, 45% of customers will unfollow a brand due to irrelevant content, so it’s important to keep your finger on the pulse and adjust as necessary.

Retailers can use social listening to continually monitor the situation and make more informed decisions about their strategies and where their products and services fit into their customers’ lives. For example, in the event of the second wave, consumers may have a renewed interest in retailers that sell technology or homeschooling resources.


Staying on top of conversations that pertain to your brand, products and campaigns during back-to-school will be invaluable, and may even provide insights your brand can apply to its holiday and 2021 social strategy.

Focus on customer care

With all of the uncertainty around reopening, your customers will have a lot of questions and concerns. This makes it incredibly important to focus your efforts on making sure your customers are taken care of.

In the Sprout Social Index, we found that 49% of consumers will unfollow a brand due to poor customer service. On the other hand, consumers who are satisfied with a customer experience are likely to post about it on social, like this happy customer we discovered in our back-to-school Listening Topic.

Those considerations coupled with the increase in inbound messages across the board show that retailers need to monitor their social inboxes closely, actively engage and respond to their audiences.

Introduce or increase influencer and brand partnerships

With what we know about the high levels of engagement with influencer content and consumer interest in donations, partnerships can be extremely valuable in back-to-school campaigns.

Last year, Walmart, one of the major big-box back-to-school retailers, teamed up with LeBron James to give a nine-year-old the ultimate school supply shopping spree. While not every brand can partner with celebrities like LeBron, consider partnering with influencers in your community that are accessible, relatable, creative and able to create quality content remotely.


The lead up to back-to-school campaigns this year has been unique to say the least, but as we enter the peak season, social will continue to be a major touchpoint in the customer journey and drive purchases both in-store and online.

Brands that put their customers at the center of their strategies, focus on providing high-quality customer care, emphasize in-store safety measures and support their communities will be front-of-mind come back-to-school time.

About the data 

All referenced data on average social messages sent and received per day is derived from 9,113 public social profiles (4,705 Facebook; 1,770 Twitter; 1,928 Instagram; 326 Pinterest; 384 LinkedIn) of active retailer accounts between January 1, 2019 June 30, 2020. More than 76 million messages sent and received during that time were analyzed for the purposes of this report.

To represent that data most accurately, numbers were rounded to the nearest hundredth decimal place and then truncated for simplicity within the graphics.

The messages analyzed in Sprout’s Social Listening tool were pulled from publicly available, global Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, YouTube and web data. Learn more about Sprout’s social listening offerings.

For questions about the data, please contact