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What Will Back to School Shopping Look Like During a Pandemic?

Erin Ollila
August 25, 2020

3 minute read

With some children starting school in masks and others from behind a screen, parents can expect this year’s approach to education to be quite different from years past. But, what will back to school shopping be like? Can retailers expect the same rush for the newest fashions and last-minute stationery, or will the retail experience also look much different from what parents are used to?

Here’s a quick look at what you can expect for your 2020 back-to-school shopping experience.

Spending is going up, not down

One might think parents will be spending a lot less on their back-to-school shopping this year. Students who are learning at home may not need a new closet full of fashionable clothes. In some districts, children returning to the classroom will have their learning materials provided for them, with students being asked to keep backpacks, lunch boxes, and other personal items at home. But spending is actually expected to increase this year, not decrease.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) with Prosper Insights & Analytics survey reports that families will be spending an average of $789.49 on their back-to-school shopping, almost $100 more than last year. So what’s all this money being spent on? According to NRF, “The survey found 36% expect to buy laptops, 22% computer speakers/headphones, 21% other accessories such as a mouse or flash drive, and 17% printers. A similar 17% plan to buy non-computer items including calculators, furniture like a desk or chair, and workbooks.”

Safety first

While many school districts are increasing their purchases of cleaning products and buying new-to-school items, such as personal protective equipment, parents also plan to purchase safety-related items before the start of school.

Deloitte reports that “Parents also plan to allocate budget for personal health products, spending an average of $46 per student on supplies like sanitizer and wipes.” Other items on the back-to-school shopping list are health-specific purchases in case students were to get sick, such as pain relievers, cough drops, thermometers, and more.

Stores will be busy

Expect long lines if you plan on doing in-store back to school shopping this school season. According to a recent Shopkick survey, 66% of respondents planned to shop in-store for their school supplies, regardless of the need for social distancing. Of those, “Nearly all in-store shoppers (95%) will shop at big box retailers like Target and Walmart, followed by office supply stores (37%), club stores (25%), drug stores (24%), and grocery stores (20%).”

Though, shoppers are also utilizing contactless or limited-contact shopping options, like BOPIS (buy online pickup in store). Deloitte reports that “26% of shoppers plan to use BOPIS more frequently” for their immediate back-to-school shopping and also for future needs.

Goods are unavailable

2020 isn’t the year to be brand specific or too picky about what you’re purchasing. Consumers will find that many of the items on their shopping lists are actually out of stock, especially the big ticket items needed to make learning from home possible. Desks are sold out at many retailers, from big box stores like IKEA to online giants such as Amazon, likely due to the increased demand in the spring when people transitioned to working at home, and now because parents are creating workstations for their children as well. Computers seem to be more accessible, but consumers will be vying their peers for what’s available, and the cost savings won’t be so easily realized.

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Erin Ollila
Erin Ollila believes in the power of words and how a message can inform – and even transform – its intended audience. After a 12+ year career in human resources, she's jumped headfirst into digital strategy. Erin is a geek for SEO and all things social media.
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