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With School Openings Up in the Air, Back-to-School Shopping Goes Back to Basics

Like everything else that has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, the back-to-school shopping season is mired in uncertainty now that the status of school openings across the U.S. is up in the air. This, of course, significantly impacts how apparel retailers project and procure what they need to sell for the season, making it the toughest back-to-school season to assess shopper demand.

During a session at the Texworld USA Virtual Edition, Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst, retail at The NPD Group, cited that 30 percent of the school districts that have reported are going to operate under remote learning, which provides an entirely different environment for education and brings a different element to the type of clothing parents would be buying for their children.

Kayla Marci, market analyst at retail data analysis firm Edited, noted that she believes the notion of value is likely to evolve due to the drastic changes in the learning environment, with more of a push for product longevity.

“We’re seeing products that are scuff-resistant, stain-resistant and they’re really communicating the value within that fabric and within those particular products,” Marci said during the panel. “I think that this is going to dictate the way consumers are shopping in the future, and they are wanting to buy into a certain quality.”

With local municipalities and school districts likely to open on different schedules, the concept of a true back-to-school start is less cut-and-dry than it has ever been. As the pandemic has continued to spread the U.S., traditional shopping habits have become more fluid, meaning fewer people are going to be buying fall clothes for their children when it is still summer.

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“Consumers now are buying in what I call the ‘here and now,’” Cohen said. “They’re buying for this week. They’re not buying for this month, and they’re not buying for this season. They’re buying for what they need at the moment to either entertain themselves, educate themselves and work from home…They’re not going to be buying corduroy pants and sweaters for quite a while.”

Now, it appears core and essential styles remain at the forefront of apparel trends due to the heightened consumer focus on comfort and functionality.

“Mirroring the trends we saw for adults, there was that very noticeable shift into loungewear now becoming essential for kids too,” Marci said. “Emphasizing comfort, athleisure, for example, has always been a core trend with sweatshirts, trackpants and sneakers basically the unofficial back-to-school uniform, but home schooling and online learning has really propelled this forward.”

The focus on basics and comfort has to be putting denim manufacturers on edge. According to Edited data, jeans comprise only 10 percent of bottoms that sold out of stock in May, versus 16 percent of bottoms that sold out throughout all of 2019.

Marci also noted that apparel retailers will likely shift toward elevated basics, which could result in higher price points, but something that parents may have real interest in, especially if the products add protective measures.

Cohen and Deborah Weinswig, CEO and founder of Coresight Research, both shared an underdiscussed point in the back-to-school shopping shifts, in that the school uniform business may be drastically impacted if private schools elect to operate under distance learning. In 2019, a Coresight survey indicated that 26.7 percent of parents of school-aged children bought school uniforms last year, representing a $12 billion market.

“We’ve done it every year for the past 10 years and last year was actually the second-highest penetration of parents buying school uniforms,” Weinswig said. “It will probably be up until the last minute to know if there’s going to be a school uniform business.”

The fluid back-to-school season complicates the overall shopping calendar, given the state of supply chains today, according to Weinswig.

Back to school always leads to questions about holiday,” Weinswig said. “We have heard, going back to the idea of moving Prime Day to October, a desire from many retailers to have some kind of shopping holiday in October, so they get a sense of what demand is and they can start to pull volume off December since the supply chain may be so unreliable. Even if you order on Dec. 15, they may not be able to get it to you on Dec. 25.”