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Back to School – What Should Businesses Expect during COVID-19?

Avatar photo by Jessica Buchholz, Events Coordinator | August 12, 2020
back to school

Like everything else in 2020, Back to School is going to look a lot different. Emporia hosts K-12, along with Flint Hills Technical College and Emporia State University. From a business perspective, “Back to School” generally produces a more pronounced economic shift than some may realize. Emporia has a much more balanced economy than many “college towns”, but there are some things that we should all contemplate to pivot our business models and provide area consumers and citizens with the products, services, and support that they need.
The following are a few things that you may want to consider as school gets closer:

  1. Items on the “back to school” shopping list will look different, and businesses need to highlight the products that they have that meet pandemic needs.- Parents are shopping for kids masks, pocket hand sanitizer, sealed water bottles, and other “safety based” products if kids are going back into the classroom. If kids are staying at home, people are looking for items that help facilitate the change to a classroom feel. Better technology, white boards, snacks for the day, educational games, and family activities are all on the “back to school” while staying at home list. The data that we have collected indicates that consumers are willing to shift brand loyalties due to uncertainties in the pandemic world, so your business CAN gain customers if you give consumers a compelling reason to shop with you.
  2. Locals will need to work harder to build familiarity with those coming to post-secondary school options.- In a normal year, we know how important it is to invite people into businesses that they may not be familiar with to encourage patronage. This year, those invitations are exponentially more important. You have to reach out digitally and with compelling stories to entice new customers and make them feel safe. Virtual walk throughs that show your safety protocols, “unboxing” videos that show the new products you are receiving, and select outreach programs to highlight and contextualize products are EXTREMELY important this year. We won’t have access to some of the larger introductory events, so we need you to partner with Emporia Main Street to get the word out.
  3. Traffic pattern tracking will be different than in years past, and critical.- You need to track when people are coming into your place of business, what they are purchasing, and what helped them make the decision to patronize your business. Double down on things that are working to build a more consistent traffic pattern. Emotional decision making often leads to ineffective strategies. Great brands get inside the heads of their consumers and don’t assume that their customers simply think like them. Data driven decision making will allow you to make measured decisions that can lead to a less frenetic business evolution process.
  4. Outside drivers will be reduced, so businesses will need to work cooperatively to drive traffic.- One of the tools to help drive traffic for many local businesses has been large scale events. The Great American Market, finish line parties, parades, block parties look like they are shelved for the moment. Businesses will need to work cooperatively to entice consumers to shop/dine across multiple business types. Look back over your promotions plan. If your sales boosts on certain days over the late 3rd and 4th quarters were due to a large scale event in the immediate area, you need to start planning for alternatives now. If your traffic on certain days was driven by certain types of athletic events, you may want to retool your strategy for the remainder of 2020.
  5. Tech upgrades that allow for direct contact/sales should be highlighted and enhanced.- Businesses that have effectively implemented technology that allows for direct consumer sales/outreach seem to be faring better than those that have resisted technological innovation. If you haven’t invested in upgrades to your Point of Sale systems to allow for things like direct online sales, curbside delivery, or local delivery/shipping, now is the time to make those upgrades.
  6. Fluid work environments impacted by potential quarantines could substantially impact business models.- What happens when a family has to quarantine for two weeks? How do they get essential items? How do they entertain themselves? How do they conduct work (if their health allows)? How will businesses adjust if their staff needs to quarantine for two weeks? Internally, your business needs to have plans in place to adjust for fluid work environments. Externally, can your business provide products and services that make quarantine easier for area citizens?
  7. People will still be looking for “stuff to do”, and safer local environments are preferred over traveling into the unknown.- This one is tougher. What are the projects, games, activities, etc., that people can participate in (safely) within their own community or home as the pandemic lingers? Businesses that can provide a safe outlet in the home or in the community can capitalize on an important market, and provide our local citizens an alternative to traveling into unknown areas that may constitute a transmission risk.
  8. Late 4th Quarter could get weird.- We know that college will shift to on-line after Thanksgiving. We don’t know exactly what that will do to the local market. Several students moved back to Emporia in May to take advantage of higher speed internet, and a little family time goes a long way in your late teens and early 20’s. The state of the economy, the emergence of new treatment options, and the local infection rate will all have an impact on business in the holiday shopping season. Internal safety measures, technology that allows for off-site sales, and targeted promotional strategies will be key to 4th quarter success (along with stellar products and services).
  9. Keep your eyes open for business support opportunities.- There will be more targeted business support opportunities as the next few weeks and months pass. Don’t let opportunities pass you by. You need to take advantage of all opportunities that present themselves that can help your business survive, pivot, and grow. Don’t make assumptions when it comes to business applications- simply ask those that are in a support role (like Emporia Main Street) for help. Your need to track products and services that pop up as wants/needs during the pandemic, and do your best to capitalize on product/service opportunities.
  10. Control what is actually in your control, and support safety measures that improve our collective condition.- You can control your planning. You can control your efforts to cooperate with other local businesses. You can control your marketing, your product selection, and your promotional efforts. You can’t control the entire world during a pandemic. Focus on the things you can actually control. It’s really easy to get stuck in the “woe is me” mindset, but this disease sucks for everyone- not just you. Take some control back by focusing on the things you can prepare for as back to school arrives.

Back to school is a typically a transition for our community both socially and economically. This year will be different, but there are still opportunities. If you need help, or are stuck in decision fatigue, contact Emporia Main Street. We are consulting with A LOT of businesses, just like you, on a daily basis. We are here to help you take advantage of the upcoming back to school opportunities and beyond!

About the Author

Jessica Buchholz, Events Coordinator

Jessica Buchholz is the Community Development Coordinator for Emporia Main Street in Emporia, Kansas. She specializes in event planning, volunteer recruitment, alternative marketing, media/public relations and fundraising. During Jessica's tenure at Emporia Main Street, she has helped grow events to an international level and she has created a series of new activities to meet organizational goals.