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What the Delayed Back-to-School Season Means for Retailers

September is here, and with it, a back-to-school season unlike any other—for families and retailers alike. As schools delay reopening and many opt for virtual learning, the needs and timing of the traditional retail holiday have significantly transformed. Even Prime Day, the once unofficial kickoff to the back-to-school shopping season has been postponed to October.

So where, when, and how should retailers prepare to ramp up their 2020 marketing efforts? Cardlytics analyzed consumer spend behavior to identify what you need to know.

Back to school drives comeback for specialty retail

Although tardy, the back-to-school shopping season eventually arrived for specialty retail categories. As schools finalized reopening plans later in the summer, students and parents knew what to prepare for and began gathering necessities. Traditional categories like books, office supplies, and apparel saw week-over week gains in the last days of July and early August.

With many classes going virtual, families had to invest in new desks and laptops for their learn-from-home setups. This resulted in a late-summer boost for categories like home décor and technology. A hint that some students are starting to prep for in-person classes: shoe spend jumped up 13.1% week-over-week in early August, despite being down for the majority of July.

Back to School Category Spend

Tip: Reach customers before new habits solidify

It’s a busy time, and customers are rushing to prepare for new school-year routines and set their kids up for success regardless of whether they’ll be attending in person or virtually.  Marketers must act quickly to get their share of back to school spend before customers cross all their items off their lists.

Cardlytics helps brands acquire new customers by prioritizing people who are spending on back-to-school categories such as apparel and technology. Targeted ads in our native ad platform give customers a reason to make their next purchase — either in-store or online. Build loyalty by helping them save in a time when it matters most.

Postponed Prime Day to compete with Black Friday

Despite a slow start to the back-to-school season, retailers now have an opportunity to make the most of an even bigger retail holiday. With Prime Day now rumored for early October — a month before retailers normally offer holiday deals — retailers should prep for an unusually early holiday season.  Looking at Prime Day’s previous influence on the start of the back-to-school season helps us understand the impact it will have on this year’s holiday spend.

Back to School Seasonality

Over the past few years, growing Prime Day buzz has set the pace for when back-to-school shopping kicks off. As you can see in the chart above, which looks back at 2016 spend trends compared to 2019, the retail event pulled forward the back-to-school season from August / September to early July. Last year, as traditional retail brands offered their own versions of Prime Day sales, that week over indexed typical retail spend by 19% and drove continued higher spend in the following weeks.

Brands looking to win more than their fair share of winter holiday spend will need to start their marketing early to capitalize on the Prime Day buzz and keep momentum going through the end of the year.

Postponed Prime Day Spend

Engage key holiday shopper segments starting this Prime Day

Cardlytics’ ad platform can help marketers maximize Prime Day momentum by precisely targeting holiday shoppers based on their spend behavior.

Reach more Early Birds

Start your holiday marketing in the weeks leading up to Prime Day — these shoppers will start checking off their gift lists as soon as the deals are in.

Reach more Deal Hunters

Use the Prime Day buzz to time your own campaigns and secure share of holiday budgets with deal-conscious shoppers who take advantage of Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals.

Reach more Steady Shoppers

Steady shoppers have the highest average holiday spend. Engage them consistently throughout the extended holiday season with rewards that drive repeat purchases.

Want more actionable insights?

There is no doubt that consumer spend has yet to normalize. We’re still seeing dramatic shifts between industries, categories and even buying channels. We’re here to help you make sense of it all and find your most successful path forward.  With insight into 1 out of every 2 U.S. card swipes, Cardlytics puts purchase insights into action every day for advertisers in banks’ digital channels. Contact us today for an analysis and campaign strategy customized for your brand.

These trends were recently featured in our Cardlytics State of Spend report, which follows important shifts in consumer spend and tracks early signs of recovery. Download our latest issue today and be sure to check back for the next issue.


Analysis in this article is based on data derived from the Cardlytics platform between March 5th and August 13th. While analysis is representative of purchase behavior, it does not include every customer or every financial institution on the Cardlytics platform.

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