Uncertainty in times of COVID: Back-to-school shopping

COVID-19’s impact has created a lot of uncertainty for back-to-school season, according to Deloitte’s 2020 Back-to-School Consumer Spending Survey. With anxiety and fear over financial concerns abound, parents are hoping to balance these much-needed purchases with safety and security.

Despite these concerns, back-to-school spending is likely to remain flat at $28.1 billion for K-12 students, or about $529 per student when compared to 2019. Back-to-college shoppers will spend $25.4 billion, or about $1,345 per student, the survey found.

Spending habits are also shifting to more digital-based products, with 40% of parents expecting to buy fewer traditional school supplies with technology being more prevalent in class. Most notably, there was a 28% increase in technology spending for K-12 students, offsetting a reduction in apparel spend (down 17% year-over-year) and traditional back-to-school items (down 18$ year-over-year).

“The back-to-school shopping season traditionally represents a clear transition to fall, but families this year face a period of uncertainty. With school formats still up in the air for many, the spend is shifting to tech as parents anticipate the possibility of remote learning and the need to supplement students’ education. Retailers that can stay nimble and react quickly to changing needs for education amid the challenges of COVID-19, will likely be the ones that will have an opportunity to appeal shoppers this season,” Rod Sides, vice chairman, Delloitte LLP and U.S. retail, wholesale and distribution leader, said.

More than half of parents (51%) said they plan to buy more virtual learning tools, with 40% subscribing their children to supplementary e-learning tools.

Many parents were not impressed with the way school ran in the spring, as 43% said it didn’t prepare their child for the next grade, but some were. More than half (56%) of K-12 parents and college-aged parents (52%) were satisfied with the learning resources schools’ provided during the initial outbreak of COVID. However nearly two in three (66%) of K-12 parents and 62% of college-age parents are anxious to send their kids back over concerns of the virus.

All school-aged parents expect to spend 37% of their budget online this year, up from 29% in 2019, as health concerns, such as the need for contactless formats like BIPOS (buy online, pick up in store), are top of mind (nearly one-half are seeking out BIPOS compared to 36% in 2019). With everyone basically staying inside due to distancing mandates, 64% said they are planning to back-to-school shop from home (up from 42% in 2019).

In the Northeast region, the survey found that:

  • 66% of parents are unsure how school will start;
  • 29% are concerned about paying for school-related expenses;
  • As many as 60% expect the economy to worsen in the next six months.