Although school has been out only a couple of weeks in many parts of the U.S., back to school email campaigns are trickling into inboxes and the FreshAddress Email Creative Archive.

Too soon, you say? No, because shoppers have already begun to fill their carts with school supplies, backpacks, clothing, electronics and everything the anxious college freshman needs for the perfect dorm-room home away from home.

Back-to-school/college is the second-biggest retail shopping event of the year, behind only Christmas/holiday. With billions at stake – yes, billions, not millions – retailers don’t want to miss out.

School shopping by the numbers

The National Retail Federation has not released its 2017 school spending projection yet. But, in 2016, it predicted Americans would spend a combined $75.8 billion to send kids back to school (grades K-12) and back to college.

  • That’s a lot of notebooks, glue sticks and XL-twin bed sheets. However, until 2016, projected spending had actually declined from its record of $83.8 billion in 2012.
  • Per-student average spending in 2016 was projected at $673 for K-12 expenses and $889 for college.

Three opportunities for email marketers

Besides the sheer volume of spending, three forces make back to school email promotions more enticing at this point in the summer:

1.) More online shopping:

In 2016, 43.7% of school shoppers and 37.5% of college shoppers said they planned to include online browsing or buying in the shopping mix. Although brick-and-mortar stores still rule, online shopping has been gaining ground every year that the NRF has conducted its survey.

Location tracker Foursquare also tracks back-to-school via foot traffic and found in 2016 that all-in-one locations like department and big-box stores beat out malls, bookstores and other specialty retailers but both are slowly losing ground to online.

2.) In stores now:

People are in the market already. The NRF’s 2016 consumer survey found that 22% of school buyers and 26% of college shoppers start browsing and buying two months or more ahead of time.

  • However, more than 50% of all K-12 get going in earnest three weeks to a month before classes, probably about the time school districts release their supply lists.
  • Although more college shoppers start earlier, they also procrastinate more, with 15% waiting until classes start or even afterwards to shop.
  • Foursquare found that shopping for books, school supplies and sporting goods begins around now, in mid-July, clothing next, in early August, and big-ticket items like electronics last, just before most schools begin, in late August.

3. Re-engage one-time shoppers:

Many of your one-time or once-a-year shoppers likely are buying for back-to-school. Shoppers who signed up for your emails or bought school-related merch in summer might be ripe for special reactivation/re-engagement offers that redirect them back to a journey with your brand.

Back-to-school campaigns to follow

At this point in the summer, the number of back to school email campaigns is relatively light, but we are beginning to see trends emerging.

Below are several email campaigns with swipe- and test-worthy details. Given that the window for back-to-school shopping is still wide open, you have time to experiment, test and adjust.

1. Early birds get the deals

Subject line: Beat the Crowds and Save on Back to School! – Sender: US Toy

US Toy: Back to School Email
US Toy was the first out of the gate with its back to school email, sending it on June 20, just about the time the last school buses were pulling out of parking lots in some school districts.

As with most campaigns sent this early in the season, the copy emphasizes speed and convenience, with savings as the secondary. The bulk product sizes also indicate that this offer is geared toward classroom teachers and institutions rather than families.

Subject line: School supplies for just 50¢? Don’t miss out! – Sender: Staples

Staples - back to school email
Preheader: Shop all the deals at our Back to School center.

A campaign like this is irresistible for families that outfit more than one student, and it has an enticing offer: Buy now, even if you don’t have an official school supply list.

  • Parents who have bought supplies before have a good idea of what they’ll need, and the low price makes the gamble worthwhile.
  • Staples also organizes its products well in the email. It creates a virtual department, like the one in the store, and brands this collection consistently as its “Back to School Center.”

2. Turn shopping into an event.

K-12 shopping focuses on first-day-of-school outfits and classroom supplies. College shopping is more like a “furnish your first home” event. Smart retailers treat it that way, attracting early shoppers with in-store events designed to build interest and spur sales.

Even if your brand isn’t top of mind for back-to-school, you might have some housing-friendly products that you could promote for new or returning students.

Subject line: Campus Ready: Your 20% offer is here. Plus check out our NEW college catalog! – Sender: Bed Bath & Beyond

Bed Bath & Beyond - back to school email

Preheader: Check out our College Catalog!

BB&B has the whole college-outfitting thing down to a science, which you can see from the email above. Instead of a hard product sell, it spotlights its extensive catalog and highlights its services, which also are its competitive differences, such as the “buy it here, pick it up at school option.”

The product promos will come later; this service-oriented opening email sets the tone for the entire back-to-school event. Plus, the content and design are consistent between digital (email and web) and its direct-mail flyers.

Subject line: Don’t miss the IKEA College Life Your Way Event – Sender: IKEA

IKEA back to school email
Preheader: Shop three days of deals, giveaways and more

IKEA’s college event takes a slightly different tack from Bed Bath & Beyond, because its promo is for an in-store event but also features product promotions.

This could be tactical, designed to broaden the appeal to non-college buyers because some of the pieces in the promotion would appeal to recent graduates furnishing their first apartments.

3. Remember the personality.

The three campaigns below couldn’t be more different, but they share one common thing: They all maintain their brand voice and personality.

For marketers, the takeaway here is to create interest not just with the usual parade of products but also by incorporating what’s unique about your brand into the email as well.

Subject line: They’re here! Back-to-school styles – Sender: TOMS

TOMS back to school email
Preheader: Give back when you go back: Shop the collection

TOMS’ emails combine social activism with commerce, tuned to the theme of each email. This back-to-school email features a child’s photo and school-related artwork along with products that could be but aren’t exclusively for students.

Subject line: Back to the Party School Sale! – Sender: American Science & Surplus

American Science & Surplus - back to school emal

And now for something completely different …

Did you do a double-take when you read the subject line? We did, too, and that’s probably exactly what the fiendishly clever minds behind these emails intended.

Instead of pounding out yet another email full of the usual school supplies, AS&S takes what looks like an odd assortment of things and turns them into dorm-room must-haves. (Whoopee cushions and disco balls? Why not?) Be sure to click the email to view it full size so you can read the top copy block. Somebody had fun writing that.

4. Re-engage your once-a-year shoppers.

As we noted earlier, you might have a sizable segment of shoppers who bought from you once at back-to-school time. If they ignore your emails the rest of the year, try to get their attention with a special offer tied to their interests, like the one below.

Subject line: Back-to-school ✔list – ❺ must-haves – Sender: Pottery Barn Kids

Pottery Barn - back to school email
Preheader: Save on ALL backpacks, lunch bags, desks & more.

This email in our archives tacks a win-back/reactivation program onto its regular back-to-school campaign.

5. Other memorable campaigns

Subject line: Get Your Tech on During our Giant Back-to-School Sale! – Sender: Fry’s Electronics

Fry's back to school email

We picked this one so you can see the call-to-action button. “Tap Here” speaks to mobile shoppers, and the size is guaranteed to avoid fat-finger tapping mistakes … but you’ll have to click on the email to view it full size in our archive to see what else is unique about it. (No registration needed to view the email, but it’s fast and free, so why not?).

Discussion question: Would you test this in your own email? Why or why not? (Use the comment box below to share your thoughts.)

Subject line: August Newsletter: Recipes, crafts and inspiration for back to school, birthdays and more - Sender: Hallmark

Hallmark back to school email
Preheader: Win back-to-school season with a little help from Hallmark.
Thanks for subscribing to our emails, 36791-0DF3@XYZ.com.

How can you get aboard the back-to-school train if you don’t run a business that sells typical school merchandise? Take a cue from Hallmark’s newsletter, which uses content marketing to promote back-to-school, even though Hallmark itself isn’t a typical destination store for school supplies.

6. Subject lines we liked:

  1. 6pm: Back-to-School Preview Sale! (Comment: good for early season; would get lost once the frenzy begins)
  2. Academy: Get Your Head Start on Back to School! (Comment: Speaks to parents looking to get the grind of school shopping over early)
  3. ASICS America: Start Fresh: Head Back To School In Style. (Comment: Everybody likes a fresh start.
  4. Express: This jacket = Back-to-school perfection (Comment: This subject line = aspiration + economy of words)
  5. Target: 99¢ school supplies & more school deals end today. (Comment: Detail-rich wording can distinguish it from all of the “Shop Back to School Today” emails competing for attention in your inbox in August).