Back-to-School Spending During an Unusual Fall Season

By Brendan Gill  | 

For retailers, the “back-to-school” period, generally comprising July and August, is the second-most important time of the year. Parents predictably spend billions of dollars on school supplies, new clothes, and technology for their children, from kindergartners to college freshmen. Of course, 2020, the year of the coronavirus pandemic, has flipped almost all predicable consumer behavior on its head. Back-to-school is no different, and 88% of consumers indicate that the coronavirus will affect their spending in some way. Not only are consumers in a depressed economy with limited information spending more than ever, they’re also buying different products and shopping more online. Here’s a closer look at what’s different this year.

Despite record unemployment and economic uncertainty, school is happening in some form, and pent-up demand has likely driven a surge in spending, according to a Deloitte study reported by CNN. The average K-12 parent could spend as much as $790 on their child, and back-to-school and college spending combined is predicted to top $100 billion for the first time. Deloitte vice chairman Rod Sides indicates that this is a positive sign for the holiday season — despite smaller budgets and greater unemployment, demand can still drive spending. The National Retail Federation reports that the uncertainty around reopening — when, how, and how often children will attend in-person classes — has had little impact on clothing and supplies. Children still grow and need supplies every year. The difference, according to many, is in the additional supplies families and children need as distance education becomes a reality for most.

AdWeek reports that 54% of families don’t know what they’ll need in the fall, due to shifting plans. Across the country, 19% of students are planning on full in-person school, 42% online, and 39% engaged in a mix of the two. This uncertainty is vexing retailers, who can’t depend on a reliable consumer demand to inform a supply chain. According to an AdColony survey, 57% of students and parents will be purchasing personal protective equipment, like masks and sanitation products, 38% will be purchasing electronics, and about one-fifth will be outfitting home offices with new furniture. Axios highlights a variety of marketing messages from retailers that address the lack of certainty this year. Target offers “everything you need for wherever you college,” while Bed, Bath & Beyond offers tips on “How to design your own ‘dorm room’ at home.” The Washington Post reminds readers that when adults transitioned to working from home, furniture outfitters Wayfair and West Elm saw a surge in home-office furniture purchases. And then consider the technological necessity for students forced to commit to full-time distance learning. Almost one-third of families will be buying computers or tablets to facilitate web conferencing.

Where parents and students will be shopping is a little more predictable, and follows other industries during covid-19: they’ll be shopping mostly online. More parents are shopping at only one or two stores. According to Mobile Marketer, over half of US consumers will use smartphones primarily for back-to-school shopping, and 55% said they purchased something on their mobile device directly after seeing an ad. In addition to being budget-minded, consumers are staying out of brick-and-mortar shops. Per AdWeek, 44% said they’ll be doing more of this shopping online, and AdColony reports a more staggering 77% of consumers will shop at online-only sites like Wayfair, an 18% increase from 2019. Mobile users will also research competitor prices, check product reviews, and look for promotions. A snapchat study revealed that 86% of high schoolers on its platform planned to buy school supplies, an indication that marketers would be wise to spend time and money on digital advertising during this season.

No matter what it looks like, it seems that returning to school is a powerful driver for retail spending. And no matter where or how students attend, they still primarily depend on their parents to purchase their new clothing, accessories, and supplies during this window. Shopping habits are following lifestyle habits, and bending to the needs of distance learning, leading to the big purchases—laptops, furniture—that are driving the biggest (and strangest) back-to-school retail season in recent memory.

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