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CSA Exclusive: Uncertainty hangs over back-to-school season

Udayan Bose
Udayan Bose

The 2021 back-to-school season may include a late spike and “experience seekers,” and serve as an indicator for holiday shopping trends.

Chain Store Age recently spoke with Udayan Bose, founder and CEO of digital marketing firm NetElixir, about what he sees as the major consumer trends developing for the back-to-school shopping season. While industry observers including the National Retail Federation (NRF) have predicted record-breaking back-to-school sales results this year, Bose is more cautious in his outlook.

“We are anticipating three key buying behavioral shifts occurring over the next few weeks, which we believe will be a direct indicator, and heavily influence, what to expect for the upcoming 2021 holiday shopping season,” said Bose. “Experience seekers, or Gen Z and millennial shoppers who are more likely to purchase products from brands that are aligned with their core values and provide an immersive shopping experience, will be coming out in droves.”

[Read more: Survey: Retailers prioritize back-to-school over holiday]

“As retailers begin to think and plan for the 2021 holiday shopping season -- and specifically, their e-commerce initiatives -- it is imperative to keep a continuous tab on trends and data, including industry, business, consumer, and competitor,” advised Bose. “This is no longer an option; it is a business necessity.”

Bose also contradicted some other experts by forecasting a late surge in back-to-school shopping volumes.

“The back-to-school shopping spike this year is likely to happen later than usual,” said Bose. “During pre-pandemic times, Prime Day used to trigger a spike in back-to-school shopping. However, this year, with Prime Day happening in June and when many schools had not even finished their spring semester, it was too early for the spike to happen. As we enter August, there will be greater urgency from shoppers that may lead to a sales spike.”

Bose added that in-store sales are likely to benefit more from the later spike than online sales, and online shopping behavior during the third quarter of 2021 is likely to be less predictable as more people start shopping in-stores. However, he said whether the sales spike will be big enough to ensure a strong back-to-school season for online retailers remains to be seen. 

Bose concluded his commentary with some advice regarding the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic was a massively disruptive event,” he stated. “The fluctuations we experienced in the first half of 2021 will slowly flatten as time goes on; however, it may take three to five years to see full recovery. Retailers must be aware of this uncertainty that’s likely to linger and plan accordingly.”

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