Here’s How Back-to-School Shopping Will Change in the Year of the Pandemic

The protracted coronavirus pandemic — plus a recent surge in new infections — has changed how families are planning and spending for the upcoming school year.

According to Deloitte, which released this week its annual back-to-school survey, about three-fifths of parents are unsure about the format of the academic year, while 66% are worried about sending their kids to the classroom due to the health crisis. On the other hand, nearly a quarter of parents reported that they had not received any communication from colleges on COVID-19 precautions and 62% are nervous about seeing their children enter or return to college this fall.

Amid these uncertainties and anxieties, the consulting and advisory firm forecasted that back-to-school spending will likely remain flat, reaching a collective $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.

Although overall spend is expected to remain unchanged, Deloitte 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. In the report, Deloitte noted that parents of both K-12 and college-age students expect to spend a total of $10.4 billion online this back-to-school season — up from $8.1 billion last year. It predicted a 13% dip in in-store shopping, while online shopping is expected to jump 8%.

Plus, while mass merchants are still the top back-to-school retail destination, digitally native platforms and dollar stores are also gaining market share. The firm found that consumers are placing more value on convenience and safety over price sensitivity and product variety, with 35% of respondents suggesting that COVID-19 precautions were an important consideration for selecting a back-to-college retailer this year.

“The back-to-school shopping season traditionally represents a clear transition to fall, but families this year face a period of uncertainty,” added Deloitte vice chairman and head of U.S. retail, wholesale and distribution Rod Sides. “Retailers that can stay nimble and react quickly to changing needs for education amid the challenges of COVID-19 will likely be the ones that will have an opportunity to appeal to shoppers this season.”

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