Retailers Face Unpredictable Back-to-School Shopping Season

Parents don’t know when -- or if -- their children will go back to school. This is a big headache for the retailers who rely on them for summer sales of clothes and supplies.

Just over a quarter of parents are unsure when they’ll do their back-to-school shopping this year, according to a new survey from consultancy Deloitte LLP. When they do shop, virtual classes due to the Covid-19 outbreak mean that 40% of parents expect to buy fewer traditional school supplies.

That also means that students at all levels, not just in college, need personal computers. As a result, technology spending for K-12 is expected to rise 28%. That’s expected to underpin a back-to-school season that inches up from last year’s levels, with Deloitte estimating total spending of more than $28 billion.

The trends will likely vary widely depending on local state and county conditions, meaning the 2020 back-to-school season will look a lot different from those of past years. Retailers must stay nimble and provide products “in the right place at the right time,” said Jean-Emmanuel Biondi, a principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP.

Retailers Face Unpredictable Back-to-School Shopping Season

Back-to-school spending and summer sales have taken on increased importance for retailers as competition has intensified for the billions that families spend annually on everything from backpacks and tablets to notebooks and shoes. Safety equipment like hand sanitizers and wet wipes are also part of the shopping list this year. Amazon.com Inc.’s creation of its mid-summer Prime sale has sparked discounts across the industry.

But uncertainty around the start of classes may change that this year. Forty percent of parents expect to start school shopping four to six weeks before the fall semester begins, Deloitte’s survey found. But many aren’t sure when that will be. So some communities will likely see back-to-school shopping peak at the regular time: late July to early August. For others, the timeline will shift toward the end of August.

Retailers have acknowledged the challenge. Kohl’s Corp., for example, is closely monitoring the landscape. The company is “really making sure we’re ready to respond as we see where the customer goes and what the demands are,” Chief Executive Officer Michelle Gass said in an interview last month.

Walmart Inc. has created designated sections for teachers and virtual learning tools on its website. The world’s largest retailer is also touting its contactless delivery and ordering options for back-to-school shopping.

High Anxiety

Safety is a key variable: Two-thirds of surveyed parents said they were anxious about sending their child to school amid a pandemic. Stores face a similar dynamic, with nearly one half of shoppers saying they’ll seek options like buying online with in-store pickup. That’s up from 36% in 2019.

This change in consumer behavior could provide a lasting boost to e-commerce. “They might not go back in the stores,” said Rod Sides, Deloitte vice chairman. “That move to digital might be permanent.”

The Deloitte survey took place from May 29-June 5 and polled 1,200 parents with at least one child in grade school in the U.S.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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