Instead of pomp and circumstance last spring, many universities were offering congratulatory confetti and cards boxed up and mailed out to graduates’ homes.
The coronavirus shut down campuses and canceled large-scale graduation ceremonies, but in many cases, the budgets for those events still existed, and apparel-decoration shops like Campus Ink in Champaign, IL, were able to lean hard into kitting and drop-shipping to stay relevant for their clients in higher ed. “We realized fulfillment was going to be our saving grace,” says Steven Farag, co-owner of Campus Ink. “Our presses were not spinning as much, but we were definitely shipping out a ton more.”
Heading into the 2020-21 school year, that all-important pivot helped position Campus Ink as a creative partner that was able to create unique experiences for colleges and universities, even under challenging circumstances. For instance, the shop still had orders to produce welcome-back shirts for college students, but in the age of COVID, it was important to personalize and individually “bag and tag” each shirt to enable safe distribution, Farag says. In other cases, Campus Ink was tasked with creating online coupon codes for branded merch to accompany virtual admissions experiences.
“It does feel like we’re headed in the right direction.”Aubrey Cocklin, Mirror Promos
Education has long been a top market; in fact, according to Counselor State of the Industry data, it was the top market in promo from 2014-2019. There are always student clubs that want shirts, athletes who need uniforms and eager parents excited to sport foam fingers and other spirit gear. And each year, a fresh crop of high school graduates gets a swag bag of orientation materials and other goodies.
But all those typical needs were thrown into flux during the lingering pandemic, with schools delaying their openings and switching to virtual learning or a hybrid option. Overall college enrollment declined in 2020-21 by 2.5%, with higher education losing about 400,000 students compared to the previous school year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Though places like Campus Ink found opportunity with kitting and online stores, many universities retreated into survival mode. “A lot of the universities really just stopped their buying,” says Aubrey Cocklin, owner of Mirror Promos in Massillon, OH. “They didn’t know how much they were going to have in revenue. Enrollment dropped, residence halls were closed. It was a mass loss. Everything stopped for quite a while.”
Percentage that promo sales to the education market decreased in 2020.
K-12 schools have also posed a challenge for distributors.
“This past year has been an adventure, to say the least,” says Tim Holliday, co-owner of Sarasota, FL-based Children’s World Uniform Supply (asi/161711), which in addition to promo, operates a retail store selling school and sports uniforms for K-12 students. “With almost all the schools having the option to attend from home virtually, that, of course, took a big hit on what we were able to sell.”
School uniforms are less of a necessity for cyber school, and even when schools required polos for calls, parents weren’t necessarily buying as many shirts as they would for in-person school, Holliday says.
“If you’re sitting at home on Zoom, you don’t need to be dressed to the nines,” he says. “Our back-to-school numbers totally reflected that.” As the year progressed, there’s been an uptick in sales, but it hasn’t made up for what was lost at the beginning of the school year, he adds.
Education Product Picks
This wristband keytag (20066) helps college students stay organized while showing off their school spirit. Include it as part of an acceptance letter package or first-week orientation gift.
Quikey Mfg. Co. (asi/80210)
A comfy hoodie in school colors would be a welcome item for students of any age. This Alternative Apparel fleece hoodie (8804PF) is super soft thanks to its 77/23 cotton/recycled polyester blend and would fit in anywhere on campus (or on virtual calls).
Brandwear United (asi/59528)
This drawstring backpack (BG417) works well for K-12 and college-age students. Add a school mascot or crest, and perhaps some personalization, and fill the pack with important paperwork, logoed pens, pencils, erasers and other school supplies.
Prime Line (asi/79530)
For K-12 schools that are in-person or hybrid, there’s been opportunity to sell logoed masks, which is likely to continue at least in the short-term. Holliday recently completed an order of masks for a high school softball team. The players are required to wear the masks while they’re not on the field, so each mask was imprinted with a particular player’s number on it to cut down on confusion.
Even with schools that remain virtual, there are still selling opportunities. Many of the charter schools that Cocklin works with are making an extra effort to keep students engaged during remote schooling by holding various contests on social media and giving out branded hoodies, T-shirts and joggers as prizes.
As for graduation ceremonies in the spring and summer, many universities have been in a holding pattern. “They don’t quite know what they’re doing yet,” Farag says. Whatever ends up happening, Farag believes that graduation yard signs will be a hit for families again.
It’s been a challenging school year in so many ways, but there have been signs of normalcy returning to the education market. Cocklin has seen more university clients requesting their old promotional standbys, like scratch pads and keytags. As the vaccine continues its rollout and schools figure out ways to hold events safely, the demand for promotional items to support those efforts will likely continue to increase. “It does feel like,” she says, “we’re headed in the right direction at this point.”