5 Ways Back-to-School Shopping Is Totally Different This Year

It's later, ongoing and centered on new products

Back-to-school shopping has a different look and feel in 2020. Getty Images
Headshot of Lisa Lacy

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In simpler times, back-to-school shopping for many American students meant a trip to local stores to pick out supplies like binders, backpacks and clothes.

Of course, 2020 is again the exception to the rule. Research shows pandemic-fueled uncertainty has upended the annual shopping event.

Though consumers continue to gravitate toward online shopping and click-and-collect services to prepare for the new school year, they are embracing wholly new behaviors this season. Here’s a closer look.

‘Diffuse’ shopping season could see a late spike

Back-to-school shopping has been both delayed and extended this year. Kate Muhl, vp analyst at research firm Gartner, described the 2020 season as “diffuse.” Some shoppers got their lists checked off early, while others are waiting until the start of the school year—an ambiguous date in some parts of the country.

Data from financial services firm Affirm shows the peak shopping period has since been pushed back a month to August. This aligns with research from the National Retail Federation (NRF), which found that 54% of consumers hadn’t finished their back-to-school shopping in July because they didn’t know what they’d need depending on whether instruction would take place in person or remotely.

Further complicating matters is record unemployment—more than 16 million Americans were out of jobs in July, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics—which means some families may simply use what they already have, according to Jennifer Polk, vp analyst at Gartner.

In addition, student needs will change as learning models evolve, and a return to in-person learning could even spur a second back-to-school shopping season somewhere down the road, Polk added.

Big-ticket items are bumping up overall spend

The NRF anticipates record spending on back-to-school purchases this year, but that doesn’t mean consumers are buying more. Instead, shoppers are purchasing bigger-ticket items to prepare for remote learning, driving overall spend to nearly $34 billion. That’s up significantly from $26 billion in 2019 and breaks the previous record of $30 billion set in 2012.

K-12 parents told the NRF they plan to spend an average of $790, which is nearly $100 more than the average last year.

“A lot of things people have to spend on are higher ticket items as they prepare for what becomes a remote learning environment—and tech issues were certainly a feature of [remote learning in] the spring,” Muhl said. “For more affluent families, they can buy peace of mind with technology.”

According to a more recent study from the NRF, 37% of parents who expect students to be at home plan to buy laptops, and 23% plan to buy furniture like desks or chairs. Financial services firm PayPal found similar interest in furniture and home goods (63%) and electronics (59%).

In fact, data from ecommerce analytics firm Profitero confirms kids’ desks are “the hot-ticket item” this year. From June 6 to July 25, Profitero said the search rank for “kids desk and chair set” was 17 times higher on Amazon while “kids desk” was up by a factor of 14. The term “kids desk” was also five times as popular on Aug. 6 as it was a month prior, per Google Search Trends.

Meanwhile, parents who will send their children to classrooms will increase purchases of nontraditional school supplies like face masks, hand sanitizer and gloves. PayPal found 81% of respondents planned to spend more on these products in 2020. (Market research company Numerator also found 62% of households anticipate purchasing disinfecting wipes or spray, and 67% expect to buy hand sanitizer.)

@lisalacy lisa.lacy@adweek.com Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.