How To Capture Your Fair Share of the $101.6B Back-to-School Spending Season  

We may still be in the peak of the summer season, but now is the time to start planning your back-to-school and back-to-college marketing campaigns.   68% of families surveyed by the NRF say they start shopping at least three weeks before school begins.  And a quarter of these value-seeking shoppers start their buying journey two full months early.

This means that advertisers should begin their planning cycles soon.  After all, being tardy might cost you your fair share of the massive $101.6B back-to-class spending season.  Thankfully,  back-to-school in 2021 should look a lot more normal than in 2020. College campuses in particular have been quick to announce plans to bring students – who are eager to get back to some semblance of normal –  on-campus this fall.

The return to college campuses (not to mention the latest consumer mobility trends) point toward one medium as a must-include in your media mix: out-of-home (OOH).  OOH delivers reach, contextual relevance, and impact, all while amplifying the effectiveness of your entire media mix and offering one of the lowest CPMs around.

Read on for a review of back-to-school season trends and forecasts, plus a collection of OOH marketing ideas that are sure to net you A+ results this fall.

“Back-to-Class” is the Top Spending Event of the Year

According to the NRF, “Back-to-Class” is the top holiday consumer spending event of the year. On average, consumers spend $1,849 on back-to-college and -school shopping combined ($1,059 and $790, respectively), which far surpasses even the winter holiday season ($998 on average).

Though back-to-school spending has generally followed an upward trend up over the past 10 years, the COVID-19 pandemic – which spurred nationwide school closures and left families in a perpetual state of uncertainty for much of the year – caused back-to-school spending to hit record levels in 2020.  Pragmatic parents stocked up on learning-from-home materials, like laptops, headphones, and desks, even as they minimized spending in more typical categories like clothing.  

In 2021, as life returns to normal, back to school spending is on track to surpass the milestones hit last year – albeit in different shopping categories.

2021 Should See the Greatest Back to School Spending Yet

Mastercard SpendingPulse, which monitors spending across all forms of payment, forecasts that back-to-school spending should increase 5.5 percent versus last year, and 6.7 percent on a two-year basis.

The product categories that will benefit from this increased spending vary. Generally, school supplies are the largest category for younger and older students alike.  Among college students, personal care goods are the second largest category, followed by clothing and accessories.  Additional categories that are unique to the college crowd include food items and gift cards.

Across the board, clothing sales are expected to soar. Mastercard SpendingPulse forecasts sharp increases in shopping for shoes and apparel – especially trendier clothing items like cropped tops – as consumers recover from a year of sweatpants and pajamas.  

Consumers Will Be Shopping Offline

Many of these sales will occur offline. Mastercard SpendingPulse forecasts that online sales will drop 6.6 percent for this period compared to last year, when many shoppers relied heavily on online retailers. Department store sales, in particular, should be up over 25 percent during the back-to-school period, compared to a year ago.

Tips & Insights:  Best Practices to Reach Back-to-School Shoppers

Whether you’re in retail, CPG, electronics, furnishings, or one of dozens of other relevant verticals, back-to-school is a huge spending season that you won’t want to miss.  And with consumers returning outdoors – and to brick-and-mortar stores – in droves, out-of-home is the best medium to engage back-to-school shoppers this summer and fall.  

Here are 10 tips to make your OOH back-to-school campaigns shine.

1) The back-to-school shopping season is long. Plan for extended flights.

Back-to-school shopping starts early and ends late.  A significant percentage of families begin shopping months before school starts, but sales really pick up in August and continue through to October.  Many college students in particular don’t purchase a large number of goods until they’re settled on campus. This means that there’s plenty of opportunity to influence spending from July through October.  Be sure to consider this timing when budgeting your flights.  

2) Teens' opinions matter during the back-to-school shopping season.  Be sure to engage multiple target audiences.

When it comes to their back-to-school shopping lists, teens and pre-teens wield significant spending power, so be sure to invest a portion of your ad budget toward reaching and engaging these young decision makers directly.  “Members of Generation Z are clearly becoming more involved with back-to-school purchasing decisions rather than leaving the choices up to mom and dad,” explains NRF President and CEO, Matthew Shay. “Over the years, both teens and pre-teens are spending more of their own money on back-to-school items.”

3) Consider geographies carefully: your back-to-college campaigns will likely require very different geographic targeting.  

Families with school-aged children reside throughout the United States, but if you’re targeting college students, you’ll need to carefully consider which geographies you prioritize.

You can, of course, target the metros with the most students. New York – which is home to NYU, Columbia, The New School, CUNY, Fordham and 1,050,800 students – tops the list of the most populous college towns in America. It’s followed by Los Angeles (1,043,000 students), and Chicago (519,238 students).  These also happen to be the 3 most populous metros in the nation – and among the most expensive media markets.

If you’d like to maximize your budget, however, you’ll likely want to target areas in which college students make up the largest share of the population. Areas with a high percentage of college students span the largest metros to otherwise tiny towns, so we can group these into three “classes”: major metros (those with populations exceeding 1 million), mid-sized markets (between 100,000 and 1 million people), and small towns (under 100,000 people).  See below for a table showing the top ten cities in each class.  The best approach is to include a mix of classes in your campaign plan.


Large Metro Areas

Mid-Size Metro Areas

Small Metro Areas


Los Angeles

Ithaca, NY

Vermillion, SD



State College, PA

Pullman, WA


San Diego

Bloomington, IN

Brenham, TX



Lawrence, KS

Vincennes, IN



Blacksburg, VA

Oxford, MS



College Station-Bryan, TX

Athens, OH


San Jose

Columbia, MO

Starkville, MS



Champaign-Urbana, IL

Levelland, TX



Ann Arbor, MI

Kingsville, TX


Oklahoma City

Gainesville, FL

Ames, IA

Source: Bloomberg CityLab, The Reality of America's College Towns, September 8, 2016

4) Leverage hyper-local targeting to make your ad dollars go farther.

In addition to prioritizing specific DMAs, you’ll also want to prioritize ad units that are on or near schools and college campuses.  AdQuick offers a variety of OOH ad inventory that is directly on college campuses nationwide, including digital screens and interactive kiosks.

5) Tap into shopper mindsets with place-based ad units.

Place-based advertising – which includes ads that are on-location at specific businesses or venues – allows you to take advantage of the contextual nature of OOH.  It’s well-known that consumer mindset is a key ingredient to advertising receptivity.  If you’re able to reach consumers while they're in a positive and/or relevant mindset, they’ll be much more receptive to your advertising message.  

Place-based advertising inside shopping malls, for example, is a surefire way to reach families that are already in a shopping mindset – and therefore more likely to be receptive to back-to-school ads.

Extracurricular activity destinations that are reminiscent of school, like kid-focused dance studios, martial arts studios, local baseball stadiums, and soccer fields are also effective options for place-based ad units.

6) Find perfectly-positioned ad units with point-of-interest (POI) targeting.

AdQuick’s advanced POI-targeting feature allows you to easily find ad units positioned near specific store locations, entertainment destinations, or anywhere you’d expect your target audience to visit.

For example, brands targeting families with school-aged children should consider ad units that are near kid and family-focused businesses like Chuck-E-Cheese, Party City, Kumon Tutoring, or Sylvan Learning Centers.   Ad units that are en route to kid-friendly destinations – like zoos or amusement parks, which typically have one main entrance – are also good options.

7) Think “outside the billboard” to overcome inventory shortages.

Investment in out-of-home advertising is skyrocketing this year, as consumers rush to spend more time outdoors and retreat from digital devices.  This means that some areas have limited billboard inventory options – or their premium ad units are being sold at premium prices.  

Savvy marketers can combat this by thinking “outside the billboard”.  AdQuick partners with over 1,000 media owners to provide every out-of-home ad format imaginable – from static billboards to hand-painted murals – so it’s easy to diversify your out-of-home media mix and maximize your reach.  

For example, wildpostings are a popular option to reach consumers in trendy, urban areas.  Digital floating billboards are one of the only ways to reach families with kids playing at the beach during the summer. Digital truck billboards, car wraps, and rideshare car toppers can be especially effective to reach students on campus or consumers in areas with low or pricey billboard inventory.  An added plus: you can often specify a custom route to make sure you reach all of the key gathering spots in an area.

8) Reach NCAA event-goers through outdoor advertising.

To many college students,  NCAA football games are the premier entertainment destination – surpassing even professional sporting events. Over 47.5M fans attended NCAA football games in 2019, according to the National Football Foundation.

This year, the college football schedule kicks off on Saturday, August 28th, so early games offer the perfect opportunity to engage college students still wrapping up their back-to-campus shopping.   And, from place-based advertising within stadiums to digital billboard trucks to aerial advertising, the opportunities to reach NCAA event-goers through OOH are endless.  

9) Leverage audience data to find efficient units to reach the right consumers.

AdQuick offers hundreds of purchase-based, behavioral, psychographic, and demographic audience filters, so you can easily identify the out-of-home ad units most likely to reach your exact target audiences.

Additionally, for brands with broad, unrestricted geographic footprints like D2C or ecommerce brands, prioritizing audience over market can help you uncover pockets of highly-efficient inventory.  For example, affluent suburbs and exurbs in mid-sized markets can be easily overlooked when you’re planning your campaign, but these areas are filled with families shopping for back-to-school goods.

10) Go experiential.

Experiential marketing and face-to-face events on college campuses are uniquely effective at reaching and engaging college students.  Offering a tangible, offline experience creates an opportunity to truly connect with students in a memorable way – one that turns them into repeat customers and lifelong brand loyalists.

The opportunities to leverage experiential marketing span from simple (e.g., on-campus sampling) to complex (e.g., brand ambassador programs and custom-build pop-up experiences), so consider your budget and resources, and don’t be afraid to get creative!  

Did any of these tips strike a chord?  Want ideas tailored to your campaign needs? AdQuick’s in-house team of out-of-home strategy experts is ready to help you plan an effective back-to-school campaign that’s perfectly suited to your unique campaign KPIs.  Schedule a free 15-minute OOH strategy session today!