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How Students & Parents Feel About Back to School Shopping, In 3 Charts

Back to school shopping is already on—but will this season live up to brand expectations? We asked students and parents about their shopping plans and more to see what BTS may look like compared to last year…


Thanks to the pandemic, last year’s back to school shopping season looked much different than usual. And while many young consumers have been getting more comfortable with in-person activities, with COVID-19 still lingering and the emergence of the Delta variant, there are questions around whether this year’s BTS will be “back to normal” or a repeat of 2020. However, during the summer, some optimistic retailers and brands have been preparing “for one of [the] biggest back-to-school and college seasons ever.” On Amazon Prime Day, the ecommerce giant made back to school shopping a major focus for their sales, with collections like “School & College” and “Back To School Deals” product pages, and reported that it sold 600,000 backpacks, one million laptops, 240,000 notebooks, 40,000 calculators, and 220,000 Crayola products. Apparel also experienced a 78.2% jump in sales compared to 2020. 

But the question remains: How do students and parents really feel about the back to school shopping season compared to last year? We recently asked students and Millennial parents all about their shopping plans for the season, and compared their responses to those in 2020 to see if this BTS will be the boom retailers are hoping for. Let’s start with the basics: How many are planning to shop for back to school?

The number of middle/high school students and Millennial parents who are planning to go back to school shopping has increased significantly from the number who said they shopped for BTS in 2020. Last year, there was more uncertainty of what school schedules would look like, but after a year of (mostly) remote learning for many families, parents are most likely more prepared for what to expect this year, and know what kind of supplies to get their kids this time around. 

But brands are also giving them plenty of reasons to shop—and are going all in on reaching young shoppers this year. (Perhaps to make sure 2020 does not repeat itself.) AdAge reports that of those who plan to BTS shop, 64% are doing so for the discounts. Brands and retailers including Dick’s Sporting Goods, OshKosh B’gosh, and Bed Bath & Beyond are ready for BTS shoppers, promoting their new offerings earlier than usual: Dick’s Sporting Goods enlisted Gen Z TikTok creators to lead its “Welcome Back” campaign; OshKosh B’gosh released their biggest marketing effort to date with a slew of 30-second-spots inspiring kids to chase their goals; Bed Bath & Beyond is welcoming college shoppers with its new private-label brand Squared Away. New kids’ apparel brands have also been popping up to inspire young parents and teens with fresh looks. While last year caused a lot of uncertainty for potential BTS shoppers, the National Retail Federation expects this year’s elementary through high school spending to reach $37.1 billion (up 9%) and $71 billion for college spending (up 5% from 2020). 

But we did find that though more are planning to shop, that doesn’t mean that they’re preparing for all in-person learning: 

Almost half of college students and over half of Millennial parents say they’ll be buying supplies for both at-home and in-person learning. In other words, these groups want to be prepared for any scenario—and hints that hybrid learning could be a reality for many students this fall. For brands, this means an opportunity to provide solutions and products for multiple learning scenarios. Younger students are more optimistic about in-person learning, with 55% reporting they’ll only be buying supplies for going to school in-person compared to 37% of college students and 38% of Millennial parents. 

And where will they be buying all these supplies? In-store shopping is making a bit of a comeback: 

The number of BTS shoppers who say they are planning to do most of their shopping online has decreased across all groups, while those who plan to shop mostly in-store has increased. This shift is especially prominent among college students, with the majority reporting they did their BTS shopping online in 2020 and only a third saying they plan to shop mostly online in 2021. Again, younger students are the most likely to have in-person plans in their future, with half of middle/high school students saying they plan to BTS shop mostly in-store. Considering middle schoolers and high schoolers are also the ones most enthusiastically planning for going back to school in-person, it’s fair to say this younger group is feeling more invincible—or perhaps more “over” COVID safety measures—than others. Additionally, YPulse research found that 47% of Millennial parents say they are anxious about shopping in-store for back-to-school items, compared to only 38% of middle school and high school students. And as the Delta variant continues to be a cause of concern to families, brands are ramping up their ecommerce offerings and digital campaigns to target them. 

Overall, back to school shopping is still (and already) looking different this year. While caution remains, it’s likely that more will be BTS shopping overall, and that more of that shopping will indeed happen in-store than it did in 2020. 

YPulse Business users will have access to the full Back to School shopping report and data August 11th!  

Don’t have a YPulse Business account? Find out more here.