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Customer Growth Partners: Back-to-school spending to rise 3.7%, driven by online

back to school items

E-commerce spending will fuel a solid back-to-school season for retailers even as most physical stores see declines. 

That’s according to Customer Growth Partners’ 18th annual Back-To-School forecast, which predicted that sales will rise 3.7% year-over-year for the July -thought September period to $647 bllion. The 3.7% increase is slightly below the 10-year average back-to-school growth of 4.3%. (For the National Retail Federation’s back-to-school forecast, click here.) 

E-commerce will again lead back-to-school sales, with digital growth up a robust 21%, which is a $37 billion jump from 2019, the report found. Online will represent more than 100% of the overall $24 billion increase in sales this year, with other categories expected to decline.

Discount superstores and warehouse clubs will see a strong 3.8% increase in sales from last year—but even here, most of the growth will come from the companies’ online sales. The sharpest declines among retail sectors will include apparel (down 10.9%), department stores (down 9.1%) and health/personal care (down 6.4%).

With the consumer economy accounting for almost 69% of overall GDP, and retail the largest segment of consumer spending, the pace of the retail recovery will help shape the broader economic outlook, according to Craig Johnson, president, Customer Growth Partners. 

“Although the retail rebound has been vigorous, it will not be V-shaped—but instead will unfold as a ‘rolling recovery,’ gathering steam over the back-to-school season and into the fourth quarter,” Johnson said. “Assuming the pace of Covid has eased by then and that employment keeps recovering—neither a slam dunk—we may well see an unexpectedly strong holiday shopping season.”  

“After April’s sharp year-over-year 5.2% plunge in retail sales due to the Covid closures, traffic and sales have been gaining speed ever since,” said CGP’s president Craig Johnson. “Lessons learned from past disasters, whether 9-11 or the 2008-09 Financial Crisis, show that the American shopper is deeply resilient after even the worst of calamities and that she will bounce back smartly—as long as her household has a job.”  

[Ed. Note: CGP has maintained a two-decade long Big Data retail platform tracking retail spending and supporting Annual, Holiday and Back-to-School forecasts, with nationwide feet-on-the-street field research across over 100 benchmark shopping venues. The Back-to-School (BTS) forecast spans all retail sales except Autos, Gasoline, Restaurants, Food & Beverage and Home Improvement, based on Dept. of Commerce Census retail categories.]

“The surprising vigor of household spending, despite widespread unemployment, is based on strong consumer fundamentals, including solid 3% wage growth, robust 8.8% Disposable Income growth, and the healthiest household balance sheets in years.  With savings rates an exceptional 23%, household savings now total $4 Trillion, up an annualized $2.9 Trillion YoY—which means that consumers have $713 Billion per quarter in ‘dry powder’ cash available for consumer spending, more than the entire $647 Billion BTS forecast,” Johnson said. 

CGP’s Base Case BTS 3.7% contrarian forecast stands in contrast to most dour industry expectations, and in fact lags CGP’s own April estimates of 2H2020 spending, which had forecast retail sales to be down YoY until the Holiday/4th quarter forecast. The 3.7% BTS estimate marks a deceleration from 2019’s BTS results, which rose a stellar 5.9%, topping CGP’s 2019 forecast of 5.1% BTS growth. 

Given the wide range of uncertainty surrounding the Covid pandemic, CGP has prepared sensitivity analysis to bracket the Base Case BTS 3.7% forecast with High Case and Low Case forecasts, of +5.1% and -2.9% respectively. 

Highlights of CGP’s 18th Annual BTS forecast include:

  • Total 2020 BTS sales will rise 3.7% from $624 Billion in 2019 to $647 Billion; the 3.7% rise is slightly below the 10-year average BTS growth of 4.3%.
  • E-commerce will again lead BTS sales, with digital growth up a robust 21%, a $37 Billion jump from 2019—and representing more than 100% of the overall $24 Billion increase in BTS sales, since most other categories will show a decline.
  • Discount superstores and warehouse clubs will see a strong 3.8% increase in BTS sales from last year—but even here, most of the YoY growth will come from these stores’ online sales.


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