Staples’ Serenity-Now Approach To Back-To-School

About 22 years ago, Staples released what was arguably the best back-to-school commercial in human history.

For those unable to watch at work, the commercial features an elated father, who dances and skips his way through a Staples, picking up school supplies for his son and his daughter — who both follow along, looking properly miserable. The entire experience is scored with “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year.”

Which is both funny and — in Staples’ case — true. Staples is not a destination location for Black Friday shoppers — though its uses during the holiday season certainly exist, it is not generally the first place people think about when they think holiday shopping madness.

The back-to-school season, on the other hand, is pretty much Staples’ Christmas season — and Staples knows it, having officially dubbed itself the “back-to-school specialty store.”

Amazon might be the “everything store,” according to Staples’ VP of retail marketing, Christine Mallon, but Staples is something quite special when it comes to getting the kids geared up for the back-to-school shopping season.

“Staples has a unique competitive advantage in that we specialize in school supplies year-round, not just July through September,” she noted.  Staples is making that clear  this year, with a full court press of marketing that includes the expected TV sports advertising slots and digital campaigns, as well as something a little different: movie theater advertising.

This time around, however, Staples’ advertisements are less Christmas themed, and instead it has set it sights on being the home for “back to school serenity,” with an appropriately new-age visual aesthetic in the ad to match the tone. The school supplies dance, take floral shapes and “bloom,” while a rich baritone voice encourages viewers to “breathe” and to “let the back-to-school shopping wash over [them] like a warm summer wind.”

The ad finishes: “There’s no back-to-school stress, only school supply serenity — thanks to Staples, the back-to-school specialty store.”

It’s an interesting positioning play — and well suited to the needs of parents who’ve frequented the big-box store chains that are also offering back-to-school sales, and often complain about the crowded, confusing and slightly antagonistic atmosphere that comes from being elbow-to-elbow with scores of other hot, tired parents who are just trying to make sure they purchase the right kind of glue sticks.

The bigger challenge, of course, is the race against Amazon — which was 2017’s top choice for parents on the prowl for back to school goods, according to data from Brand Keys. It’s hard to beat at-home shopping in terms of serenity — and the proof that that is in the figures. As of today, Amazon owns about 49 percent of the eCommerce market, according to eMarketer, and back-to-school items are strongly in the wheelhouse of products people like to buy online.

Adding to that is a generation of up-and-coming parents, who are becoming a bigger part of the back-to-school shopping pie. These parents are what PYMNTS calls Bridge Millennials — a generation of consumers that is defined by, among other things, its extreme enthusiasm for online shopping, and, particularly, for shopping on Amazon.

“It continues to be a competitive space — it’s hard for these specialists like Staples and Office Depot to differentiate,” Matt Sargent, senior VP of retail at consulting firm Magid, told Ad Age.

The question for the consumer, and the question that Staples needs to have a solid answer for, is why they should venture out to a specialist when Amazon, Walmart, Target or Costco are all available — and all trying to entice the same shopping crowd.

The answer to that, noted Joel Kaplan, the creative director on the back-to-school serenity ad campaign, is peace. Staples isn’t offering the chaos — it’s fighting it.

“Most of Staples’ competitors add to the crazy with limited seasonal inventory and picked-over aisles,” he said. “As we developed the Staples work, we wanted to counter that chaos and give families a moment of calm reassurance that Staples would have everything they need, exactly when they need it — because Staples specializes in supplies every day of the year.”

Back-to-school in the U.S. is big business. In 2018, the National Retail Federation estimates that consumers will spend $82.8 billion getting ready for the school season, making it a more valuable run of commerce activity than Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter and Valentine’s Day combined. As of now, according to estimates, a little less than half of that has already been spent.

As for who collects the last 60 percent in the next month, the race is on.


Exclusive PYMNTS Study: 

The Future Of Unattended Retail Report: Vending As The New Contextual Commerce, a PYMNTS and USA Technologies collaboration, details the findings from a survey of 2,325 U.S. consumers about their experiences with shopping via unattended retail channels and their interest in using them going forward.