The back-to-school season is now the second-biggest shopping season of the year–$82.8 billion was spent in 2018.

By Rieva Lesonsky

Zulily, the online retailer that launches a new store every day, conducted a survey that revealed:

  • 77% of consumers think supplies are more expensive today than in the 90s
  • 71% think shoppers spend too much on back-to-school shopping
  • 58% say budget is the most important factor in back-to-school shopping, topping convenience and being on-trend

Zulily recently debuted its back-to-school offerings, featuring a 6-week Blast-From-the-Past sale highlighting iconic school season essentials from the 1990s—at 1990s prices. Since it’s likely you can’t afford to do those types of promotions, and because Zulily is so successful in the retail space, I talked to Emily Motlong, the Group Marketing Manager of Brand at Zulily, where she leads a team responsible for brand strategy, promotions, TV, social media and partnerships to get her valuable insights.

Rieva Lesonsky: The Zulily survey revealed consumers think they’re spending too much on back-to-school shopping. How then to convince consumers to spend money with you?

Emily Motlong: One of Zulily’s core value propositions for customers is that on our app, shoppers can find products at prices they would want to brag about. First, we focus on delivering those great, unique finds: our business model allows us to curate time-limited offers to shoppers across a multitude of categories. For example, home items are available up to 70% off; men’s clothing can be found up to 77% off and women’s goes for up to 78% off. We understand that families are always looking for a great deal, and that’s why we’re dedicated to delivering those deals every single day.

Second, we iterate on our experience every day to earn the trust and engagement of our customers. Our model is different from traditional, transactional e-commerce. We focus on connecting with customers, fostering a relationship built on engagement and trust with them. Our customers come to Zulily for a fun break, for inspiration and entertainment.

By focusing on delivering truly amazing deals and an experience about discovery, we hope to build a different way to shop—a  shopping experience that’s additive to the customer, their family and their home—all at unbeatable prices.

Lesonsky: The survey also said budget is most important to consumers. How do small retailers charge “budget” prices and still make money? Their margins are so small—is it about offering more unique merchandise?

Motlong: One of the more interesting emerging trends in retail is the rise of integrated campaigns where noncompetitive retailers will work together to target and engage customers via sampling programs, sweepstakes and more in order to gain insights into a new or emerging customer, test an upcoming product or scale marketing efforts. In fact, Zulily has worked with both large CPG brands and up-and-coming companies on such co-op programs that benefit both companies from both a marketing and a revenue perspective.

In today’s e-commerce world, it’s not just about making transactions in the short term: it’s about building lifelong connections with customers—and you achieve that through driving consideration and brand awareness through data-driven storytelling and strategic partnerships.

Lesonsky: Zulily is going retro. Why—and why the 90s in particular? What’s the appeal to consumers—is it about attracting millennial parents nostalgic for their childhood favorites?

Motlong: According to Pew Research, one million millennials become mothers each year. And because the generation, the youngest of whom were born in 1995, respond well to nostalgia (they literally invented the hashtag #ThrowbackThursday, which has been used more than 47.2 million times to date)—along with the 90s returning in fashion and beyond—we wanted to infuse 90s inspired gear and 90s inspired prices to our back-to-school assortment this year.

Lesonsky: You mentioned the overall trend of nostalgic marketing. Why is this resonating with consumers? Is it specific to consumers of certain ages (millennials?) Is the nostalgia trend going to extend beyond clothing?

Motlong: Nostalgia rules beyond just apparel and accessories. Looking at 2018’s top-grossing movies, the winners capitalized on franchises established during millennials’ childhoods: Incredibles 2 ($608.6 million), Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom ($417.7 million) and Mission: Impossible – Fallout ($220.2 million) (stats from Box Office Mojo). One of the reasons millennials may pine for simpler times is they miss the stories, characters and most of all, the lower prices of their childhood.

Nostalgia can be powerful because classic characters, styles and products can bring up memories—and it’s also a way for parents to share their childhoods with future generations. In my experience, customers are really looking to use e-commerce as a way to connect with their loved ones—nostalgic gear can help facilitate that connection and fun that a shopping experience should be.

Lesonsky: How can small business owners anticipate the next trends. How do you suggest they keep up? Favorite resources?

Motlong: At Zulily, our merchandising teams work together with brands both big and small to help advise on future trends, whether it’s in the world of CPG, furniture, apparel and more.

One of the most powerful open tools small businesses can leverage is social media. Anyone has access to what’s trending and popular around the world on platforms like Instagram, Twitter and more.

Shopping stock photo by Liderina/Shutterstock