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This Back to School Trend Is Driving Big Gains at Walmart & Target, But Hurting Other Retailers

Six months into the coronavirus pandemic taking hold in the United States, most retailers already know to expect some disruption in key shopping catalysts.

Still, with electronics — laptops, in particular — gaining added traction as a back-to-school shoppers aim to boost remote learning efficiencies, the usual winners in the category are also seeing mixed results. (Multiple studies, including Deloitte’s annual back-to-school survey, released in July, list digital resources and tech equipment as the leading category for b-t-s spending this year.)

According to a recent report from Placer.ai, big box stores offering a wider selection of products, such as Walmart and Target, are attracting more customers than retailers with focused customer subsets, like Staples and Office Depot.

Visit durations in August, for example, are up 4.5% at Walmart, which may indicate shoppers are buying more at a single store and looking to accomplish as much as possible in one trip, noted Placer. On the other hand, the trend could stifle brands like Office Depot or Staples which traditionally benefit from shopping trips that include multiple stops.

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Add to that the fact that many consumers are leery of enclosed spaces as fears of contracting COVID-19 remain high, it’s not implausible to expect that shoppers hopping from store-to-store in hopes of snagging discounts could be less likely this year.

Although Placer notes most big names offering electronics — including Office Depot and Staples — are seeing, at least, some b-t-s momentum amid larger macroeconomic challenges, their “one massive risk” could be coming from the very trend that’s boosting mass merchandise players like Walmart and Target.

Overall, per Deloitte’s July report, back-to-school spending will likely remain flat in 2020, reaching $28.1 billion for K-12 students, or roughly $529 per student, while back-to-college shoppers will shell out $25.4 billion, or approximately $1,345 per student.

Deloitte also forecasted a shift in purchase preferences and intentions: Two-fifths of parents said they planned to buy fewer traditional supplies this year as they invest in digital resources to supplement their children’s education. It added that coronavirus-related categories like hygiene products and furniture for homeschooling have also emerged.

What’s more, as the majority of consumers hesitate to visit stores, more parents plan to have their purchases delivered or use contactless services, such as curbside pickup.

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