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Back-to-School Sales Solid, Sneakers Lead the Way

It appears the summer coronavirus surge did not entirely dampen the back-to-school season.

Though it’s still too early for businesses to report any formal numbers, numerous executives have hinted at solid sales in recent weeks. In mid-August, John Furner, president and CEO at Walmart U.S., described the season as “very strong.” Last week, Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Fran Horowitz said the company has “been pleased” with U.S. sales to-date. And on Thursday, Genesco CEO Mimi Vaughn told investors the return to in-person learning “is driving more robust sales.”

A blog post published by the NPD Group’s Matt Powell last week offers firmer signs of a recovery—at least for athletic footwear. Citing NPD data, Powell said overall sales in the category during the six weeks ended Aug. 14 grew 20 percent compared to the prior-year period and high single-digits against 2019.

“In my opinion, there is no doubt that the child tax credit checks and a meaningful growth in wages contributed to strong sales,” Powell, vice president and senior industry adviser, sports at NPD, wrote.

Kids’ athletic footwear performed particularly well, with sales up almost 40 percent year-over-year in the first half of the back-to-school season. Women’s athletic footwear climbed nearly 30 percent over last year and 21 percent versus 2019, with Nike and Adidas continuing to “cede share,” Powell said. The men’s market “was a laggard,” he noted, as it struggled to offset last year’s “flooding” of limited-edition shoes.

According to NPD’s data, sales of walking shoes climbed almost 60 percent, while performance running footwear rose about one-third and hiking shoes inched up in the high single-digits. “It’s important to remember that hiking was one of the few categories that grew in 2020,” Powell said. Basketball shoes improved over last year, but dipped nearly 20 percent against 2019. Casual, athletic-inspired sneakers saw year-over-year growth in the mid-teens, while skate footwear climbed more than 45 percent.

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By brand, Converse and Vans saw some of the most significant improvements with sales nearly doubling compared to last year. On Running, now formally on its way to a $100 million initial public offering, saw its business quadruple year over year. Puma improved by nearly 75 percent, Reebok by more than 50 percent and Under Armour, Brooks and Asics by more than one-third. Adidas grew in the high teens. Nike, on the other hand, “underperformed,” according to Powell. Sales at its Jordan Brand turned negative compared with 2020.

“I expect the second half of this year’s back-to-school season 2021 will be positive–though more challenged than in the first half,” Powell said. “Last year’s strong September results will temper growth.”

The rise in sneaker sales comes as the larger clothing and footwear industry saw retail personal consumption expenditures sink 1.9 percent month-over-month in July, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The slowdown, also observed by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and the Census Bureau, occurred amid widespread supply chain disruptions.

Deloitte, relying on the survey responses of 1,200 parents, predicted earlier this summer that back-to-school sales in clothing and accessories would total $12.3 billion, slightly less than the $12.4 billion it projected last year. Overall, it forecasted total back-to-school spending of $32.5 billion, up from $28.1 billion in 2020.

A Slightly Extended Back-to-School Season

When Deloitte surveyed parents at the end of May and beginning of June, their responses appeared to indicate the back-to-school season would be shifted noticeably earlier compared to last year. Of the $32.5 billion in spending the data company was forecasting, it estimated 59 percent would occur by the end of July.

That survey, of course, was conducted before the Delta variant swept the country. Since the beginning of July, coronavirus cases have soared.

Talking in mid-August, Josh Dreller, director of content marketing at the consumer intelligence company Skai, suggested that rising Covid cases in July may have pushed some parents to wait a bit longer to buy. “The people that were more worried about [products going out of stock], they were the ones who completed their purchases early, but I think any parent that waited just for more clarity, actually, [went the other way],” Dreller said.

As companies have reported their earnings in recent weeks, many executives have taken the opportunity to address the ongoing back-to-school period. Their statements seem to largely confirm that the season is running a little long.

On Tuesday, Caleres chairman and CEO Diane Sullivan told investors this year’s season, “elevated for sure over the 2019 levels,” was tracking “a little bit later,” with peak sales arriving roughly a week later than usual.

Robert Wallstrom, Vera Bradley’s president, CEO and director, made a similar pronouncement Wednesday. “We also expect that there’ll be a more elongated back-to-school season,” Wallstrom told investors. Unlike Caleres, sales at the company remained down against 2019 levels, though up year over year.

When Foot Locker presented its second-quarter results a couple weeks ago, Richard Johnson said the cadence of sales would “probably be more representative of 2019 than 2020.” Jill Feldman, vice president, general manager, Kids Foot Locker, offered slightly stronger language this week and echoed Caleres and Vera Bradley’s forecasts of an elongated season.

“The back to school season has been incredibly strong for Foot Locker and Kids Foot Locker this year, especially compared to 2020 when so many kids did not return to traditional in-person learning,” Feldman told Sourcing Journal. “With Labor Day weekend approaching and the timing of the Rosh Hashanah holiday this year, we anticipate the first two weeks of September to continue to be strong for shopping among parents and children (especially in the Northeast), further extending the traditional back to school season.”