Hundreds of Shoe Retailers Bank on Back-to-School Shopping to Boost Their Businesses Every Year — What They Have to Do Now 

The unprecedented 2020 school year impacted by COVID-19 is nearing an end around the country, but lawmakers and school authorities are already facing the challenges of reopening this fall.

While coronavirus restrictions are starting to ease for stores and restaurants, the uncertainty surrounding school postponements could delay the critical back-to-school selling season.

According to industry insiders, buying may be delayed while parents take a wait-and-see approach to shopping, especially for smaller children who outgrow their shoes quickly. For trend-conscious teens, however, they may scoop up the hot looks early on for fear they may not get their favorite looks.

When it does come time purchase, consumers may be reevaluating their shopping options. Since many turned to the internet during the COVID-19 crisis, it’s likely they’ll continue to shop online as strict guidelines for in-person shopping remain in place due to ongoing safety concerns.

“It’s possible the season is delayed or more spread out than we typically see,” said Beth Goldstein, industry analyst, Fashion Footwear and Accessories, NPD Group. “Although it does vary, back-to-school footwear sales (and sales across fashion categories) tend to peak in early August, based on the timing of need as well as tax-free holidays. Also, for the past few years we’ve seen a small Amazon Prime Day boost in July. But, that’s likely moving out this year as well.”

An uncertain economic climate is also playing a role in back-to-school buying, according to Rod Sides, vice chairman and leader of Deloitte’s U.S. Retail Practices, with many parents out of work or uncertain about job security. “[Since] spending is often correlated to overall economic strength, when we have a strong economy people will spend more on computers and those kinds of items [as well as] apparel,” he said. “Given the [current] struggles — unemployment, the [economy] in the second quarter, and the fact it will be a sporadic move back to opening [the country], we’d expect [back-to-school sales] to be lighter.”

Where to shop for school shoes this fall will be just as important for families as when to buy. According to Sides, the season is typically more of an in-store shopping experience since parents prefer kids are properly fitted. However, with many people reluctant about coming into close contact with sales associates — as well as the added uncertainty about shoe sanitization processes — the pendulum may continue to swing towards online shopping.

NPD’s Goldstein agrees shopping preferences are shifting. “It’s possible that the percent of generated online sales stays higher than pre-crisis levels for some time —even for kids’ product,” which she noted typically lags behind adult sales for online penetration.

Smaller, independents such as Tops for Shoes in Asheville, N.C., is counting on securing its customary share of school shoe sales. According to Amelia Sluder, kids’ buyer, while its children’s department has done a strong business since the store reopened on May 9, she’s uncertain about sales hinged on back-to-school since authorities haven’t confirmed details about reopening. (Schools in the area usually open around Aug. 19, noted Sluder.)

Looking forward to business-as-usual, Sluder did not cancel any fall orders. “We’re going to play it by ear,” she said. “If school starts back up when it’s supposed to, we’re going to hit [those] sales. We need to sell those tennis shoes since that’s mainly what our children buy for school. And, since we carry a [tight selection] of brands, I kept the good ones. However, I pushed a lot of ship dates back.”

Although the selling season remains up in the air, Sluder is hopeful parents will continue to buy multiple pairs. “I feel every kid needs at least two pairs to change [off] for health [reasons],” she said. As in past back-to-school seasons, the store will be offering its kids’ club promotion, which grants $50 off with every 12 pairs purchased.

For big box chains such as Shoe Station, president and CEO Brent Barkin said later school openings could help the chain’s recovery efforts. “A delay would be easier for us since it would give us a longer time to get merchandise in before [children] need it,” he said, noting the south’s earlier school openings. Vendors, he explained, tend to ship fall goods later in the season, more in synch with school openings in the rest of the country.

Barkin added that the chain tends to see a “big upswing before back to school because kids are worried about what their friends are going to see [them wearing].” But, as people wait for confirmation on when they’ll be able to show off their wares, certain categories will experience muted demand.

“A lot of people buy things because they want to be seen in them” he said Barkin, noting the same rule applies to adults. “We’re not selling dress sandals  since women are not going to [the office].”

Like Barkin, Jake Jacobs, CEO of Foot Locker Inc., another back-to-school destination, noted fashion trends have a direct impact on buying. “Back-to-school shopping is a rite of passage for so many kids, and an important one at that,” he explained. “Defining personal style gives kids the confidence they need to look and feel their best — and ultimately do their best. So, whether their classes are held in-person or online, we believe they will continue to shop during the traditional back-to-school season.”

If the back-to-school season goes off as planned, Jacobs said the chain is closely working with vendors and its supply chain to ensure it has a strong product offering. “We are confident in our product offering, from our biggest global partners to our smaller regional vendors,” he noted. “It is, although, something we will continue to monitor as we begin reopening all of our doors.”

While the industry remains uncertain about the impact of delayed school openings and an uncertain economy on sales, Shannon Rodriguez, director, children’s apparel and footwear at Zappos, said the e-tailer is trying to stay agile.

“While the physical school year itself may look different, like many things reflecting the new normal, the fall season itself will continue –— spurring the need for seasonal clothing and new shoes outside of the well-worn summer sandals,” she explained. “We’re being as flexible as possible to be able to pivot according to demand, while being empathetic to customers’ needs in this new environment. There is a potential for less demand overall, but certain necessities will likely remain on shopping lists.”

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