Why Isn't Back-to-School a Subscription?

The Season's Missed Loyalty Opportunity

By Published on .

Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin
The annual back-to-school shopping season is nearly over, and this year we've witnessed major retailers throw at it bundles, up-sells, bulk discounts, co-branded promotions, free shipping, buzz agents and every other conceivable sales trick. And yet it's hard not to think that they've completely missed the boat.

Their marketing presumes that they've never before met their customers, and as if this year is the first time their target audiences have gone shopping for school stuff. The ad creative is frighteningly similar across brands, evoking variations on the theme of "we have low prices on whatever you're looking for." The fashion offerings are also quite similar, as buyers have spent the past year studying the same trends, interviewing the same third-party factories and otherwise chasing the idea that they can somehow exclusively address the identical buying whims of the same would-be customers.

Reality is distinctly different, isn't it? Every family shopping for school this year had to shop for it last year, save those of newly minted kindergartners. They have rituals around this activity, along with specified budgets and limited time to spend spending them. They already know the game, from who has the best selection, sizing and quality, to when to catch the best prices and how to facilitate returns. There's no possible way that one store will possess "the shirt" that everyone wants, or that it will for long.

So why aren't retailers strategically marketing their store brands and selling an ongoing relationship with their customers instead of pitching tired old sales promos as if they were total strangers?

It seems like such a duh-level idea that I hope I'm simply too dim to understand why it's not happening. Here are just a couple of ways retailer CMOs could recognize last year's shopping behavior in order to prompt it this year:

Shopping Guides. Why not tell customers which stores have merchandise in the right sizes for their kids? One of the worst experiential drawbacks of real-world shopping is digging through a pile of clothes without finding the right item. How about a ticker that updates me on item status either weekly or, if I'm really on the verge of shopping, daily? Couldn't customers enter and update sizing information in their customer accounts? Sales promo info could be keyed to this availability.

Trade-ins. Kids grow up, so lots of this year's purchases are required to replace stuff from last year that no longer fits. Why not let customers subscribe to some level of merchandise (say, underwear, or basic Ts) and by doing so get some incredibly good (and guaranteed available) deal? Customers could literally bring in the outgrown merchandise for the annual swap (great charity tie-in here). Why not have a subscription for "the latest, craziest fashion statement" items that are sourced and offered with kid involvement leading up to September?

Replacement Purchases. Like trade-ins only without the subscription, how about proactively offering customers replacement items on things they purchased in the past? There are algorithms to compute likelihood that things have been outgrown or worn out. Why not offer better prices on items for customers who would be repeat buyers in a category, like winter coats, or shoes? Customers could enter the items they're interested in replacing far earlier in the year, and perhaps there's a group-buying function, too?

Multiyear Benefits. What retail brand wouldn't like to have the committed repeat business of multi-kid families? So where are the frequent-buyer points that add up like airline points, with elite levels getting access to special store hours and other benefits? Annual patronage would be required to keep the accounts "active," which would bring folks into stores. Where are the extra ease-of-use return programs for repeat customers, or whatever other benefits that might make visiting a store more efficient and at least as bearable as sitting in front of a computer to do all that shopping? A better approach to changing rooms would be my two-cents contribution.

I just don't get it. Offering such true relationship marketing would constitute a far better loyalty program than any CRM email campaign or pointless chat on a social-media platform. Back-to-school shoppers must shop -- it's not an impulse or option, but rather more like taking the car in for a yearly checkup -- so why don't retail brands re-imagine their strategies and recognize the dimensions of that behavior? Low prices? Come on, now. Where are the agencies and consultants with the guts to propose some real, large-scale innovation?

Chalk up this season to a missed opportunity, but I'd suggest retailer CMOs learn from it and start collecting the information and building the tools so that they're able to sell their retail brand relationships. Evidence to the contrary, I predict that back-to-school will happen again, just about a year from now. Taking action now will beat acting surprised later on.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at dimbulb.net and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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