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NPD: Spring Back-to-School Rush Shouldn’t ‘Cannibalize’ Traditional Season

While the traditional back-to-school shopping season takes place in late summer, 2021 has served up circumstances that break with the status quo.

After a year spent learning mostly from home, students across the country began their return to physical classrooms this spring. According to NPD, that migration from dining room tables to desks lifted retail categories that typically see muted sales during spring and early summer.

Backpacks, along with kids’ clothes and shoes, experienced an uptick in interest during the first four months of the year, NPD said, with sales remaining strong through April. Children’s backpacks flew off shelves 63 percent more quickly than they did the year prior—a fact that isn’t surprising given that most young students were stuck at home during the pandemic’s peak. But 2021’s spring backpack sales even beat out 2019 numbers by 58 percent.

Throughout March and April, adult backpacks—which are often carried by older students—also saw strong growth. Trends in children’s apparel and footwear, like sneakers, echoed these sales trends.

“Starting in January, more schools began to offer traditional learning options, shifting from hybrid or virtual, and kids began to go back to classrooms,” said Beth Goldstein, NPD’s accessories and footwear industry analyst. “Combined with the stimulus rollout and an early Easter, this mini-back-to-school season is apparent in the strong performance of these categories.”

While this spring’s burst of demand was atypical, Goldstein said retailers still have reason to hope for healthy demand for the same categories this fall. A full two-thirds of shoppers who have children between the ages of five and 18 said they believe their kids will return to school for the fall season, and as schools continue to release more information about their plans for reopening, it’s likely that the number of students engaged in in-person learning will increase, she added.

“Assuming that the majority of kids go back to school in-person, which seems likely, consumers should be ready to spend again on back-to-school needs,” Goldstein added. “I don’t anticipate that purchases in the spring, particularly for footwear and apparel, will cannibalize much of the traditional season.”

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“When it comes to retail, the positive outlook is that kids continue to grow, so buying new clothing for school is a given,” she said, noting that fall could see a “longer, more drawn-out shopping season” as kids return to classes.

Amazon Prime Day, which took place on Monday and Tuesday, saw a modest selection of boys’ and girls’ backpacks discounted, with savings amounting to $10 or less on average. Discounts on summer-ready kids’ gear like swimwear, pool shoes and sneakers were featured more prominently than other apparel and footwear categories, suggesting that the back-to-school rush has not hit the platform in full force just yet. Top Prime Day deals on Tuesday included a selection of home do-it-yourself goods, electronics, beauty products, furniture, toys and home devices, though a category marked “school and college,” featuring computers, tablets, headphones, desk chairs and dorm room essentials was also trending.

School and community event platform Burbio’s research showed that over 60 percent of U.S. students, from kindergarteners through high schoolers, will return to school between Aug. 2-16, but many states plan to start up much later. More than 70 percent of students in New York, New Jersey and Minnesota, along with half of all students in Oregon, will go back to school following Labor Day on Sept. 6, it added. Several states touted start dates of Aug. 30.

“Some larger school districts are not reopening until September, so there’s a good chance that the traditional back-to-school season could be elongated,” Goldstein said. “Depending on how the June promotions play out, we could see both an early and a late boost this year.”