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Back-to-School Spending to See Increases This Year–Just Not in Apparel

With students’ return to school in the fall still unclear, apparel may not see the uptick that typically comes with the back-to-school shopping season if at-home learning ends up the way forward for now.

Tech may see an upswing as consumers could spend more on laptops and computer accessories to facilitate the online classes made necessary by a spreading pandemic. But that increase will hurt apparel sales, according to the latest survey from the National Retail Federation.

Parents with children in K-12 said they plan to spend a little less than last year on apparel, down slightly to an average $234.48 from $239.82 last year. For college shoppers, apparel spend is projected to be flat at $148.37.

The combined total spending for children in elementary school through high school and college students for BTS in 2020 is expected to reach $101.6 billion, topping the $100 billion mark for the first time and representing a 25.9 percent jump from last year’s $80.7 billion planned spend.

By education level, parents with children in K-12 said they plan to spend an average of $789.49 per family, or a 13.3 percent increase over last year’s planned spending of $696.70. NRF is forecasting spending for the group to reach $33.9 billion, up from $26.2 billion in 2019 and breaking the record of $30.3 billion set in 2012. Sixty-three percent said they expect to buy computers and other electronics this year, up from 54 percent last year.

College students and their families said in the survey conducted with Prosper Insights & Analytics, that they plan to spend an average of $1,059.20, up 8.4 percent from $976.78 in 2019. College age shoppers also plan a slight uptick in spend on dorm furnishings by 8 percent to $129.76 from $120.19. College spending is expected to total $67.7 billion, up from $54.5 billion last year and breaking the $55.3 billion record set in 2018.

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Consumers surveyed said they completed just 17 percent of their shopping by early July, with 54 percent noting they still didn’t know what they will need. Only 10 percent said they have received lists of required school supplies. Roughly 40 percent said they expect to receive those lists by the end of July. Another 30 percent said they expect to receive the required list by the end of August.

“By any measure, this is an unprecedented year with great uncertainty, including how students will get their education this fall whether they are in kindergarten or college,” NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay, said. “Most parents don’t know whether their children will be sitting in a classroom or in front of a computer in the dining room, or a combination of the two. But they do know the value of an education and are navigating uncertainty and unknowns so that students are prepared.”

The coronavirus pandemic is also impacting how parents plan to spend their BTS dollars. The majority, at 88 percent, said the virus will impact spending patterns, with 43 percent planning to spend more online and 30 percent noting that they plan to do more comparison shopping.

E-commerce is expected to see some of the biggest wins. Fifty-five percent of K-12 shoppers said they will buy online, up from 49 percent last year. Only 37 percent said they plan to head to a department store this year, down from 53 percent a year ago. Among college shoppers, 43 percent plan to shop online, slightly down from 45 percent a year ago, while only 26 percent said they will visit a department store, down from 39 percent last year.

A separate survey from Customer Growth Partners (CGP) expects BTS retail sales to grow 3.7 percent to $647 billion for households that have at least one full-time equivalent jobholder. CGP’s forecast range is higher than NRF’s because of what it includes in the sales range. And while significantly higher by dollar amount, it’s in line with overall expectations that consumers won’t be skimping on educational needs.

“Lessons learned from past disasters, whether 9-11 or the 2008-09 financial crisis, show that the American shopper is deeply resilient after even the worst of calamities and that she will bounce back smartly—as long as her household has a job,” CGP president Craig Johnson said.

A survey on July 8 by Coresight Research has more than one-third of shoppers, or 35.4 percent, stating that they plan to spend less this year. In addition, 27.3 percent expecting to spend more on products related to at-home learning compared with last year. Online shopping will continue to overtake in-store shopping for apparel as safety and hygiene remain top of mind for BTS shoppers. Four in 10 said they are concerned about sending their child or children back to school, and 42.2 percent of consumers, or two-fifths of shoppers, said they plan to buy face masks, other hygiene products or personal protective equipment.

Some retailers are already preparing to serve shoppers in the new normal. Reading the room and seizing on the zeitgest that sees many shoppers shying away from stores, Kohl’s on Wednesday touted its drive-up click-and-collect service while emphasizing the contactless payment options it offers at checkout.

“As parents know, this back-to-school season is like none we’ve seen before, and we will continue to offer an easy, convenient shopping experience for their back-to-school needs—whether that means heading back to school or logging in from home,” said Kohl’s chief marketing officer Greg Revelle, noting the chain’s renewed focus on “health and safety in stores to better serve families as they prepare for the new school year.”