Jul 21 2020
As the summer of COVID continues, the future of back to school remains in question—as does this year’s back to school shopping season. Many retailers are remaining optimistic, but currently forecasts about the usually vital time of year are varied. Will back-to-school shopping take a hit if schools and colleges don’t open as they usually do? Or will parents and students go on a buying frenzy in order to set themselves up for prolonged virtual learning? In our recent Retail’s New Reality trend, we asked Gen Z students and Millennial parents how they’re feeling about it all right now.
Overall, 39% of 13-39-year-olds say that they plan to do back to school shopping this year, and 25% say they are not yet sure if they will need to. In 2019, 59% of young consumers told YPulse that they went back to school shopping—so it’s very possible that this year could live up to last if all those who are currently planning to shop do so, and the majority of those who are not yet sure end up making back to school purchases.
Millennial parents are the most confident that they’ll be needing to back to school shop, and indeed they’re the group not only with the most spending power here, but who will likely have the biggest need to spend regardless of whether schools are open. If at-home schooling is part of their reality, many will be looking for tools and products that will allow them to create the classroom at home—not to mention the tech that they’ll need for virtual learning. College students taking classes remotely will also need to buy textbooks and tech—but dorm room items will of course not be on many lists. In essence, even if the same number of young consumers back to school shop this year, what they buy and how much they buy will still be very different.
Digging deeper into the sentiments of potential back to school shoppers (those who say they plan to shop or are not yet sure) reveals even more uncertainty around their plans—and a significant sign that regardless of whether they shop, the start of the season could be significantly pushed back:
The majority of potential back to school shoppers agree with the statement “I might not need to go back to school shopping because of COVID-19,” indicating that even if they plan to shop now, there is plenty that could derail their plans. The fact that so many are unsure of whether they will need to shop for supplies, or what exactly they will need, will likely push their shopping plans back. While the majority usually start their back to school shopping in July and August, we’re far more likely to see these purchases made in the fall this year. And in fact, the majority of college students and Millennial parents both agree that they will wait until classes start to go back to school shopping. The reality is that this will be a school year like none before it, and many might feel the need to figure out what their real needs are before they shop. Of course there could be some major exceptions to this: if students do go back into classrooms in person, even part time, face masks and antibacterial will be highly likely purchases before they begin. Back to school staple brand Crayola has already begun marketing a “School Maskpack” (a 5 pack with a different crayola color for each day of the week) as a “back to school item.”
Of course, the fact that items like these will be on their back to school shopping lists will also increase their discomfort with returning. Our special report Gen Z’s Education Interrupted explored how the next generation’s school experience—and higher education plans—have been impacted by the pandemic, and we found that many students were eager to get back to the classroom. But the last few months have shifted their views. In a July survey, YPulse once again asked students when they will be comfortable returning to school in-person, and found that 37% of middle and high schoolers and 52% of college students say when there is a vaccine for COVID-19. That’s compared to 34% of middle and high school students and 27% of college students who say they will be comfortable going back as soon as they are allowed—and the number who say they will be comfortable going back as soon as they are allowed has decreased significantly among both groups since we first asked them in April.
That anxiety and discomfort will also be a part of their back to school shopping experience, and will likely keep many out of stores, with over half of college students and Millennial parents agreeing that they will not be comfortable shopping in stores this year because of COVID. We explored this further by asking potential shoppers where they think they will do most of their back to school shopping:
In 2019, YPulse’s post-back to school shopping survey found that 17% of back to school shoppers made their purchases mostly or entirely online, and 48% shopped mostly or entirely in-store. We could very well see those statistics reverse this year. Currently, 38% of potential back to school shoppers say they plan to shop mostly or entirely online, and 27% plan to shop mostly or entirely in-store. But among college students and Millennial parents, the differences are more extreme, with only 17% of these groups saying that they will shop mostly or entirely in-store and almost half of Millennial parents planning to do most or all of their back to school shopping online.
According to surveys from Deloitte that examined college and K-12 parents, while back-to-school shopping will likely “remain flat” this year, the pandemic will likely boost online sales—with an increase in technology products and a dip in apparel. They predict that parents will still drop billions of dollars on school necessities despite uncertainty around school reopenings, and our data indicates that is true. But when and where they buy these supplies, and what they add to their carts will be drastically different from years past.
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