Time to go back to school is fast approaching, or for some, has already started.

But what is happening in the retail and e-commerce industry? Back-to-school shopping is expected to increase by 16% in 2021 vs 2020, according to a forecast by Deloitte. 

The Covid-19 outbreak has accelerated the digital transformation in education and is changing the way we shop, where we shop and how we shop for school. It seems impossible for retailers to predict what will happen with sales due to fluctuating coronavirus wave outbreaks, and come up with appropriate back-to-school marketing ideas

Parents have to now prepare for both scenarios – classroom teaching and virtual lessons – and need to consider buying new hardware, as well as new back-to-school clothing. 

So, how can retailers react to these changes in consumer behavior? This has proven difficult. The digital acceleration in education and coronavirus outbreaks are altering the demand for which products parents need to buy for their children. 

Back-to-school shopping in 2020 – technology sales up, clothing sales down

Past two years have been a rollercoaster for both retailers, as well as consumers. In 2020, the economy experienced a very different back-to-school sales season compared to what was in 2019, that’s for sure. 

In 2019, according to statistics by BigCommerce360, shoppers spent more than half (54%) on clothing online, followed by general school supplies such as notebooks and pencils (22%), electronic gadgets (13%) and computers and hardware (11%). 

In 2020, this pattern looked extremely different, as spending on clothing decreased significantly and spending on electronics increased. A back-to-school survey by Deloitte, found that spending on electronics resulted in a 37% sales increase, whereas clothing sales remained flat Year-over-Year. 

Virtual schooling was largely unusual and unheard of in most countries. Very few people could have predicted that something like this could happen – a shift to virtual teaching from face-to-face classroom lessons in a matter of weeks – as a consequence of a global pandemic. 

“There is added significance largely because we are in a very rapidly changing consumer environment and reopening economy”.  Steve Sadove, senior advisor for Mastercard

Against all odds, there was a huge increase in sales in 2020 vs 2019. According to Statista, back-to-school spending reached $33.9 billion in overall sales, up 30% from 2019. This was mostly due to increased spending on higher-priced items, necessary for home-schooling, such as electronics – laptops and headphones and furniture – desks and chairs. 

Source: Statista Back-to-school spending in the US from 2006 – 2021 (in billion US dollars)

Back-to-school shopping in 2021 – parents prepare for several scenarios

Let’s have a look at what back to school must-haves in 2021 have been.

In 2021, it seems like the tables have turned again – back-to-school sales had a significant shift in sales. One survey by Dept.com found that parents are expecting to spend most on school clothing (54%), closely followed by electronics and technology (23%), less will be spent on usual school supplies such as notebooks and pencils (17%). Signs of normality begin to appear. 

However, a Household Pulse Survey by the US Census Bureau, found that homeschooling in the US more than doubled in 2020-2021, rising from 5.4% to 11.1%, which will inevitably affect which products parents will buy now and in the future.

“Even if students are fully in the classroom, a lot of them are used to a more digital learning experience. That was one of the biggest changes that we saw this year in the survey, how much digital learning has propelled technology spending this year.” Kate Ferrera, Risk & Financial Advisory at Deloitte

Students still need more traditional school supplies, such as notebooks, folders and pencils, but parents also have to think about masks and hand sanitizer. Focus is on new home-schooling electronics equipment like laptops, headphones and tablets, and also new clothing. 

As seen on the chart below, the highest sales share is still coming from clothing and accessories (38% share), whereas electronics and technology products are experiencing the highest growth (+42% Year-over-Year). 

Source: Deloitte back-to-school survey 2021

Parents are having to prepare for both scenarios – virtual lessons, as well as face-to-face classroom teaching. Presumably several electronics and technology devices needed for home schooling were already bought for 2020, new school clothing is in focus this year. 

From the findings above, it isn’t particularly surprising that clothing and electronics are the leading categories in 2021. 

What can we expect from back-to-school shopping trends in 2022 and beyond? 

Although this years’ back to school shopping season isn’t over yet, a large chunk of sales has already been generated. According to one statistic, shopping for school suppliers started earlier this year. Whereas normally, around 42% of shopping was done in August, this years’ estimate is that far more families already prepared in July, in part due to lingering Covid-19 disruptions and worry that key items will sell out and won’t be restocked. 

One of the new popular places to buy school suppliers, ​online seller Amazon, already started to advertise its school items in June during Prime Day under the “School & College” section. Amazon reported its Prime Day 2021 results this year that school suppliers were in fact a topseller, selling 600 thousand items of backpacks, 1 million laptops, 240 thousand notebooks and 40 thousand calculators. 

The usual favorites, traditionally brick & mortar stores such as Target, Walmart or Office Depot, started their sales around the beginning of July. 

So, as you can see we have found there is a lot of mixed data in terms of which categories have sold best and when the sales start, although of course, this is very location and time dependent. However, even still, some trends have seemed to stick and are likely to continue next year. 

Online shopping is here to stay

It seems like the Covid-19 pandemic-induced shopping habits are here to stay. The highest sales share still comes from physical stores, however, the sales are now extremely close to online shopping, with $14 billion spent in-store and $12.5 billion spent online. 

From the below graph, you can see how the shopping habits have changed, perhaps permanently – with 43% said to shop online and 39% in-person in a physical store.

Source: Deloitte back-to-school survey 2021

Offline will merge with online

What is more, offline and online channels will merge. Buy-online-pick-up-in-store (BOPIS) model gained and is expected to maintain popularity. Omnichannel and multichannel strategy is something to keep in mind and implement for any school supply retailers out there. 

This trend presented itself and grew already last year in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, due to lockdowns and instructions to stay at home. This has paved the way to the buy-online-return-to-store and curbside pick-up trend, putting omnichannel and multi-channel strategy in focus for the years to come.

Source: Deloitte back-to-school survey 2021

Accelerated digital transformation in education has affected back-to-school shopping 

As per back-to-school survey 2021 by Deloitte, the sales for hardware and computers experienced a significant growth compared to 2019, and the growth was also notable compared to 2020 (+5% Year-over-Year). However, it is tricky to predict how sales for hardware will develop in 2022 and beyond, as clothing for kids needs to be exchanged nearly each year, but computers last for years. 

It is plausible that the sales will normalize in the next few years, and focus will be back on the more traditional product groups. However, as more kids move to home-schooling and the digital transformation in schools keeps accelerating, this trend is anticipated to stick.

Source: Deloitte back-to-school survey 2021

Focus your marketing efforts – these will be tricky to maneuver 

Evidently, it will be very difficult to predict where to focus when thinking about next years’ back-to-school marketing ideas and strategy. Back to school shopping usually starts months before school starts and ends around month after it started, but now, this pattern is hard to predict.

However, what we do know is that schools worldwide should soon return to full-time learning. More than 168 million students globally have missed out on education, says Unicef, and urges schools worldwide to reopen.

Therefore, it is critical for brands, e-commerce businesses and retailers to think about adjusting their back to school marketing activities to match new consumer expectations. To reconnect with new consumers and resonate with the new reality. 

New approaches for back-to-school marketing campaigns should include: 

  • Omnichannel marketing, as also new consumers are shopping more cross-channel.
  • Focus your marketing efforts on ecommerce lead generation, as online and digital is where new back-to-school shoppers spend increasingly more time and money. 
  • Be agile, do your research ahead of time and adjust your sales period according to customer behavior.  

To wrap up 

No one can accurately predict how the sales will develop in the next months or years. However, we can have a look at how back-to-school shopping has developed so far, and from these findings, predict what to expect from the coming months and years.

With so much changing so quickly, it is difficult to predict which products will be in focus next year. Looking at the statistics from 2020 and 2021, future back-to-school shopping won’t be just about pencils and paper. Parents now have to consider health and hygiene, and the mixture of virtual and classroom teaching, so naturally, the supply needs will keep shifting. 

What we do know is that with supply chain disruptions on top of the fluctuating demand and consumer behavior changes, retailers will have to remain flexible and keep on top of changes in consumer behavior. Predicting consumer intentions will be the first step towards understanding how back-to-school shopping patterns will play out.