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Deloitte: Back-to-school spending will be at highest level in years

The retail industry is set for its biggest back-to-school shopping season in recent years as parents and students look forward to returning to classrooms after more than a year of virtual learning.

Spending is expected to reach $32.5 billion (for K-12 students), or approximately $612 per student, according to a forecast from Deloitte LLP. This represents a 16% increase from 2020 and is also greater than pre-pandemic levels.

(Another $26.7 billion will be spent by back-to-college shoppers, or approximately $1,459 per student.)

Overall K-12 spending will increase across categories, with 40% of K-12 households planning to spend more on back-to-school items (up from 22% in 2020), including clothing, supplies, computers and electronics.  

Spending on technology products (personal computers, smartphones, tablets, wearables, etc.) is set to increase 37% over 2020 to $11.8 billion, as parents adjust to the realities of a more digitally oriented education system. Wearable technology will see the biggest gain.

“As Americans anticipate a more traditional return to the back-to-school season, the good news is that parents are ready to spend more and earlier to ensure their children have what they need to be successful,” said Rod Sides, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP, and U.S. retail, wholesale and distribution leader. “This includes increased spending on technology for both K-12 and college students, demonstrating a shifting focus on how students learn as well as how parents are shopping for these necessities. We've entered a new era of schooling where traditional back-to-school supplies are fading in favor of tech, while consumers expect certain conveniences and competitive prices." 

Other K-12 spending findings from the Deloitte forecast are below. 

• After a year of supply chain challenges, 50% of shoppers are concerned about stockouts, especially for tech items. Consumers plan to shop earlier as a result: 59% of back-to-school spending will occur by the end of July (versus 45% in 2020).

• Because their children are using more digital technologies in and out of the classroom, 44% of households plan to purchase fewer traditional back-to-school supplies.

•Although mass merchants remain the most popular retail format to visit (74%), online-only stores are the preferred format for tech purchases. Overall, more people expect to shop at online retailers (49%) and closer to home at dollar stores (41%) compared to last year. 

• Eight percent of K-12 households remain undecided about where they will do their shopping, representing a $6 billion opportunity for retailers.

• Fast-fashion and thrift store visits are also on the rise as interest in athleisure (61%) and fashionable clothing (57%) elevated among higher-income households. 

• When selecting where to shop, K-12 parents continue to seek a good deal for their purchases (51%), but they also expect improved product quality (48% versus 43% in 2020).

• Thirty-four percent of consumers plan to leverage services such as buy online, pick up in store and curbside pickup more frequently. 

• Social media is an integral part of the shopping journey for 41% of K-12 parents, up 25% from 2020. Among those using social media, 42% are visiting retailers' social media pages not only to assess their products, but to get a sense of their personality and purpose, compared to 30% in 2020.

• Forty-four percent of consumers plan to leverage tech-enabled shopping tools offered by retailers for their back-to-school purchases. Shopping using a voice assistant is the most preferred offering (20%) followed by digital wallets (17%); and "buy" buttons on social media, virtual reality and chatbots (each at 15%).

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