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School Daze: Socially Distanced Learning Augurs Well for Home Tech, Not Textiles

The strangeness that has marked 2020 could give new meaning to “home room” this year if the growing consensus that most schools will opt for distance learning amid the coronavirus outbreak proves true.

And that switch from classroom to couch could have big implications for how parents and college goers spend their back-to-school dollars this year. Online shopping has seen a shift from school supplies to desks and electronics and technology. Even college students are searching less for soft home textiles such as bedding relative to prior years if they don’t know whether they’re returning to dorm life. Remote learning will wield outsize influence over what back-to-school shoppers buy this season.

What projections say now about back-to-school sales

A National Retail Federation survey says total 2020 back-to-school spend for the elementary-through-college crowd is set to reach $101.6 billion, topping the $100 billion mark for the first time and marking a 25.9 percent jump from last year’s $80.7 billion planned spend. Planned purchases for apparel were flat, while the big winner was technology and electronics as 63 percent of parents said they plan to upgrade home computer and accompanying accoutrement this year.

Deloitte’s back-to-school data says parents are expected to head online for their learning-related purchases and confirms projections for lower spend on apparel and higher outlay on tech.

Uncertainty remains the only back-to-school certainty for the moment. NRF says many of its surveyed parents are waiting for guidance from schools before they partake in back-to-school shopping. For their part, schools are struggling to determine if they can reopen safely amid surging COVID-19 cases.

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From New York to California to Florida to Arizona, cities and states are figuring out if schools can open with health in mind and whether the calendar year might incorporate a hybrid approach blending part-time in-person instruction with remote home-based learning. Arizona’s school officials last week said school districts are required to open for some form of classroom instruction in cases where students have nowhere to go.

President Trump has been pushing for schools to reopen this fall, even if many Americans are concerned about exposing their children to the risks of catching COVID-19. And on Friday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compounded the uncertainty by calling schools to reopen on the basis that the “best available evidence” shows children who become infected are “far less likely to suffer severe symptoms.”

How parents are shopping for home and campus living

The ongoing confusion and uncertainty is dampening some of the shopping enthusiasm in what otherwise would be a period of heightened spending.

“Back-to-school purchases are being impacted across the board given the uncertainty of in-person versus online learnings, with lifts expected in electronics and computers plus accessories to accommodate the hybrid approach,” said Katie Thomas, Global Consumer Institute leader at Kearney.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any shopping for life at the dorms. “Some universities are encouraging students to move to campus even if online learning is anticipated, and many upperclassmen are choosing to return to campus housing as well, indicating that soft goods, textiles and dorm-apartment materials will still be part of the back-to-school shopping list,” Thomas added.

ShopStyle saw a huge spike in home categories, particularly desks and desk chairs, in April as parents focused on at-home instruction and even quarantine crafting projects. Searches have started to pick up in July for the college-bound set, although dorm items, while up 14 percent year-over-year, still represent a “little bit of a slowdown” versus increases in prior years as some students are still waiting to find out whether they are going back to classroom, said Alison Stiefel, ShopStyle’s general manager.

Searches for soft home textiles such as “dorm bedding” ticked up just 14 percent year-over-year, substantially lower than the 86 percent jump for “dorm bedding sets” in 2019’s year-over-year gain from 2018. And “dorm room” as a search term inched up just 8 percent, versus the year-ago gain of 11 percent. “Shower caddy” was up 27 percent this year, but not as high as the 50 percent gain last year over 2018’s figures.

Top searches in July were the Modbury Desk from Wayfair and the Pottery Barn Office Collection. And Pottery Barn Kids was a popular brand for home searches, gaining 27 percent year-over-year so far.

Shoppers entered 44 percent more queries for “kids desks” versus 2019, while “storage bench” was up 10 percent and “clear storage containers” climbed  29 percent. Other popular searches that saw year-over-year increases were “duvet covers” up 48 percent, “desk lamps” at 40 percent, “bed sheets” at 30 percent, and “dorm bedding” at 14 percent.