Parents plan to drop billions on school necessities at retailers this month, but coronavirus has overhauled the back-to-school shopping cart

  • Back-to-school and back-to-college shopping is set to start soon, even as decisions on how and where students will be taught remain undecided due to the pandemic.
  • Professional services firm Deloitte ran two surveys to glean insight from parents of both college kids and K-12 students.
  • Deloitte found that spending for both school supplies and college necessities is set to remain flat in 2020, with an increase in technology products and a dip in other categories like apparel.
  • The largest retailers are set to continue to dominate back-to-school and back-to-college spending, but online-only outfits also have an edge thanks to the pandemic.
  • In-store safety and convenience are also a larger concern for parents this year.
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Back-to-school and back-to-college shopping will look a bit different this year, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

Dual surveys from Deloitte found that parents in both consumer categories continue to favour retail giants and deals on products, with spending estimated to remain relatively flat compared with purchasing trends in 2019. However, the two reports from Deloitte also found that the coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on back-to-school and back-to-college shopping, sparking a spike in safety concerns and bolstering a growing preference for online-only and e-commerce options.

For its college report, Deloitte ran a survey between May 31 and June 17 polling 1,025 parents of college-aged children. The global professional services firm also conducted an online survey with 1,200 parents with children attending grades K to 12.

Deloitte found that parents of college students will spend around $US25.4 billion this year, while parents with children in grades K-12 will spend $US28.1 billion. The parents of college students are set to drop an estimated average of $US1,345 on back-to-college supplies, while K-12 parents will spend around $US529 on back-to-school items.

Financial struggles brought about by the coronavirus have not had a universal impact on back-to-college spending, according to Deloitte. Back-to-college spending spiked 6% for high-income parents during the coronavirus, while it dropped 12% for middle-income parents and 4% for low-income parents. Around 40% of respondents said that concerns over finances were causing them to “rethink plans” regarding their child’s college.

Across the board, the retail giants are slated to continue to dominate both the back-to-school and back-to-college categories. The biggest retailers in the United States have long succeeded in these annual summer sales, thanks to their penchant for value and convenience. That being said, the coronavirus pandemic is also driving wins for e-commerce players.

Three-quarters of all respondents to Deloitte’s survey said they planned to visit “mass merchant stores” to shop for college necessities, as well as 81% of K-12 parents. Online-only options also saw success with both consumer groups, snagging 58% of parents with college-aged kids and 44% of parents of elementary, middle, and high school-aged children.

The bulk of back-to-college and back-to-school buying is still on the horizon, according to the Deloitte survey. It found that 75% of back-to-college purchases will be made starting only in the last two weeks of July. A total of 56% of back-to-college shoppers said they planned to shop then, while 68% are aiming for the first two weeks of August. Deloitte estimated that those consumers plan to spend a total of $US14.8 billion.

For the parents of younger kids, 54% of shoppers will start filling their baskets in the last two weeks of July, and 62% will do the same in the first two weeks of August. Those consumers are slated to spend $US16.2 billion.

The trend of waiting until late July to buy school supplies and college necessities is a holdover from previous years. But given the uncertainty around college reopenings and the pandemic’s impact on the economy, those numbers are not set in stone. Parents of K-12 students in particular “remain unsure as they await news from schools about reopening,” according to Deloitte’s survey.

For back-to-school shoppers, COVID-19-related retail safety measures is an important consideration for 34% of shoppers. In comparison, 58% of survey participants said that sales were a crucial factor.

The pandemic is likely also driving a boost in online sales. Deloitte found that parents of K-12 kids plan to spend around $US10.4 billion shopping online this year, compared with $US8.1 billion last year. Meanwhile, 34% of respondents in the back-to-college survey said they expected to spend more of their back-to-college budget on e-commerce options, a 6% increase from 2019.