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Back to school 2021: The return to in-person learning

July 26, 2021

This time last year, many parents were probably starting to stress about their set-ups for remote learning. When the COVID-19 pandemic was escalating, schools all over the country were shutting down and encouraging students to finish their school year virtually. However, this year looks significantly different than last year for back to school (BTS). In fact, most K-12 schools are expected to return to in-person learning for the 2021-2022 academic year following the announcement of plans for two of the largest K-12 public school districts in the country (Los Angeles and New York City) to return full time to in-person learning this August.1 This trend is expected to sustain for all ages, as we’re predicting more college students will enroll this year than in the last few years, in part due to the fact that the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and American College Testing (ACT) are now optional for enrollment. As a result of the influx in students heading back to school, we expect to see some actionable emerging online retail trends on the Microsoft Advertising Network.

Beat the crowd. Reach consumers early.

With how much is changing this year, we want to provide you with the latest back-to-school insights. To do this, an external survey which included more than 1,000 parents who will be shopping for their children was conducted across our network in May 2021. Results proved that almost half of back-to-school shoppers plan to shop earlier this year than in previous years (42%).2 Of these shoppers, the majority (40%) plan to start their shopping 2-4 weeks before the school year begins, and an additional 24% plan to start 1-2 weeks prior.2

In case you didn’t know: Most schools will begin in late August or early September.

Knowing these timelines in advance of schools returning to session can help you in your planning. We suggest you set up automated bid strategies from Microsoft Advertising to give you flexible, advanced tools that will save you time and maximize your ad spend.

Students want to make up for lost time with big purchases

With people expecting to start their shopping earlier this year, spending is also predicted to increase. According to our survey, 44% of shoppers intend to spend more on back-to-school products than they did last year.2 77% of consumers intend to spend at least $300, and 19% of survey respondents even went as far to say they will spend at least $1,000 this year!2 The increase in spend is likely due to a longer-than-usual shopping list of back-to-school items. Some of the top trending items we are expecting to fly off the shelves are writing materials, apparel, hygiene products, and electronics. Knowing this, it’s unsurprising that 76% of respondents said they typically save ahead of time for shopping for their kids.2

Percentage of surveyed respondents on what BTS items they intend to buy this year

Chart showing percentages for surveyed respondents on what back to school items they intend to buy this year.

Move advertisers down the conversion funnel for back to school

Now that you know the shopping timeline and the price range that a lot of consumers are expecting to spend this year, let’s look at actions you can take to reach them at every stage of the marketing funnel. Microsoft Audience Network ads have been shown to drive lifts in performance for awareness, consideration, and purchase behavior. In another Microsoft internal survey, we discovered that big-box retailers and gifts and occasions department stores drove a higher lift in all three categories when running native ads on the Microsoft Audience Network.2 While native advertising alone can drive strong results, we recommend diversifying your strategy. We see the best performance for advertisers who run paid search ads on the Microsoft Search Network in tandem with native ads on the Microsoft Audience Network:

Chart showing how performance is maximized by combining Microsoft Search and Audience Network native strategies. Results were a 2.4 times higher visitation rate and a 4.6 times higher conversion rate.

Pro tip: Use In-market Audiences to target people on the Microsoft Search Network who are ready to buy back-to-school supplies, and grow your return on investment.

With how excited people are to return to in-person learning, demand for your products may soon skyrocket and we don’t want you to miss out. Time is ticking, so now is the perfect time to reach your customers with Microsoft Advertising solutions.


  • Jena Yost


    Jena Yost
  • Jackie Hoyt


    Jackie Hoyt

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