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So Long, COVID Summer—and Hello, Back to (Home) School!

A look at our nation’s unconventional summer, and continued change through our back-to-school season.

OUT: Vacation; IN: Staycation
Ah, sweet summer. A season associated with fun, freedom and boundless adventure. This year, though, the spread of the coronavirus forced many of us to say goodbye to traditions and regular plans, and figure out just what a pandemic summer looks and feels like.

It didn’t take long for COVID-19 to take the wind out of our sails when it came to summer travel; according to an early-May survey of 1,500 people in the U.S., “56% of Americans had already canceled their summer travel plans, while another 25% weren’t making plans. At all.” The most common reason given was health concerns, according to 69% of respondents.

So Long, COVID Summer—and Hello, Back to (Home) School!

So, what did America end up doing instead? We coped with the new landscape by taking indoor activities to the great outdoors.

Backyard Transformations & Outdoor Escapes
To beat “cabin fever” and the “quarantine blues,” many Americans ended up transforming their backyards into summer destinations—complete with aspirational gardens, outdoor kitchens, cozy campsites, mini movie theaters and fun-sized water parks. Forty-six percent of consumers said they did a landscaping, gardening or outdoor-living update in the last three months. Many of these transformations were created to offer a change of pace and scenery, and designed to allow social distancing when hosting guests.

Image Credit: John Kuczala
Image Credit: John Kuczala

Not surprisingly, scenery wasn’t the only thing that changed; behaviors did, too. With a majority of salons being closed or limited to minimal customers, mobile beauty services emerged, like this luxury mobile nail salon. With hair clipper sales rising 166%, DIY haircut and other tutorials and challenges flooded the Internet to keep people feeling creative and productive, including the backyard photoshoot challenge.

How Did Brands and Retailers Adapt?
By mid-June, it was clear. Despite many of their traditions being squashed this year, consumers were determined to make the most out of their summer.

To meet this mindset, brands and retailers had to throw out their traditional playbooks and pivot marketing plans to address consumer desires, while reinforcing themes of safety and wellness.

Smirnoff was among the first consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands to repurpose its summer campaign with a quarantine-inspired message. Rather than going out to eat, dancing in bars or inviting people over, Smirnoff urged consumers to “Hang Out at Home for America,” by ordering takeout and opting for virtual hangouts. Oscar Mayer leaned into the traditional backyard BBQ and created a campaign depicting people firing up the grill in the age of social distancing, while Shack Shake offered up an at-home camp experience in a box, filled with activities for all ages.

Image Credit: Oscar Meyer
Image Credit: Oscar Meyer

Walmart introduced two experiences to help families make memories together. The first, Camp by Walmart, was a free virtual camp hosted by celebrities such as Neil Patrick Harris, Lebron James, Idina Menzel and Drew Barrymore. The second, in partnership with Tribeca Enterprises, created a touring drive-in movie theater that transformed Walmart parking lots into outdoor cinemas.

Image Credit: Walmart Corporate
Image Credit: Walmart Corporate

Reimagining marketing plans to frame products—and experiences—as essentials and enhancers for staycations allowed these brands and retailers to stay relevant and give consumers a reason to make them a part of their summer consideration.

Back to School: Into the Unknown
With uncertainty surrounding the start of the new school year, parents are navigating a dizzying array of predictions and complex information from state and school officials to decide how to best prepare for school amid a pandemic and recession. According to a study by Morning Consult, 86% of parents are somewhat concerned about their child(ren)’s education in light of the pandemic, while 43% are feeling stressed, particularly about shopping.

So Long, COVID Summer—and Hello, Back to (Home) School!

Much like the summer scenario, retailers are doing their best to stay nimble, preparing at once to cater to in-store shoppers or to meet the spike of online shopping demands—or a combination of both. Either way, retailers are working to break down the shopper resistance consumers are experiencing during the pandemic, which requires employing a wide range of changes.

Safety Above All
With the pandemic situation changing daily and varying by state, it remains impossible to know what to expect as fall approaches. However, one common thread seen among retailers is their effort to prioritize the well-being of their customers, proving that it is safe to return to retail, as well as the classroom.

That’s led to an implementation of changes such as mandated masks upon the entire duration of an in-store visit, no access to product sampling or dressing rooms and overt signage to ensure customers remain socially distant throughout the store, especially in checkout lines.

Image source: Walmart Corporate
Image Credit: Walmart Corporate

As time progresses, retailers will continue to take on the challenge of balancing a clean and safe shopping environment AND maintaining the in-store customer experience. On the flip side, retailers can’t forget about their customers who prefer to “add to cart” versus pushing around an actual shopping cart.

The increase of online shopping means retailers—including brick-and-mortar stores—will need to enhance their e-commerce and direct-to-consumer (DTC) strategies to build basket and drive sales as the pandemic-driven trend towards more online shopping continues. A 38% increase in consumer spend is expected by a majority of online versus brick-and-mortar shoppers.

So Long, COVID Summer—and Hello, Back to (Home) School!

Big, traditional back-to-school (BTS) retailers like Walmart and Kohl’s are already catering to parents of this year’s schoolchildren; along with promoting BTS sales on their homepages, and all manner of ways that customers can grab what they need—including curbside pickup, standard online shipping or contactless payment in-store.

While much remains unknown, flexibility will be a key driver of short-term success for retailers this season as they work to predict and meet consumers’ needs and safety expectations.

August 25, 2020