At-home learning could drive back-to-school spending to record $101.6 billion

Back-to-school products

Uncertainty about whether schools will reopen for in-person learning in the fall could drive back-to-school spending to new record, particularly online.

Consumers tentatively plan to spend a record amount to prepare students for school and college this year as they buy more laptops and computer accessories in anticipation that at least some classes will take place online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the annual survey by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Prosper Insights & Analytics. But the intent to spend at physical stores is down across all retail categories.

Parents of children in elementary school through high school plan to spend an average $789.49 per family, up from the previous record of $696.70 they said they would spend last year. Spending is expected to total $33.9 billion, up from $26.2 billion last year and breaking the record of $30.3 billion set in 2012.

College students and their families expect to spend an average $1,059.20 per family, which would top last year’s record of $976.78, according to the NRF survey. College spending is expected to total $67.7 billion, up from $54.5 billion last year and breaking the record of $55.3 billion set in 2018.

Total spending for K-12 and college combined is projected to reach $101.6 billion – exceeding last year’s $80.7 billion and topping the $100 billion mark for the first time.

Even though many bricks-and-mortar stores closed by the pandemic have reopened, 55% of K-12 shoppers say they will buy online, up from 49%  last year. All other shopping destinations are expected to see declines, with 37% of consumers going to department stores (down from 53%), 36% to discount stores (down from 50%), 30% to clothing stores (down from 45%) and 23% to office supply stores (down from 31%).

Fifty-five percent of the surveyed consumers said they expect to take “at least some” classes at home this fall. Of those expecting to be home, 72% plan to buy electronics such as laptops and home furnishings items. The survey found 36% expect to buy laptops, 22% computer speakers/headphones, 21% other accessories such as a mouse or flash drive, and 17% printers. And 17%  plan to buy non-computer items including calculators, furniture like a desk or chair, and workbooks.

Other findings from the annual NRF survey are below.

•   The vast majority of consumers (88%) say the coronavirus will affect their back-to-class shopping in some form this year, with planning to shop more online – although that could include the websites of bricks-and-mortar retailers – and 30% saying they will do more comparison shopping.

  • With many school districts and colleges across the nation still deciding whether to reopen their classrooms in the fall, consumers surveyed had finished only 17% of their shopping on average by early July.  
  • Among those with most of their shopping left to do, 54%  said it was because they did not yet know what they will need. Only 10%  had received lists of required school supplies. But 40% expect to receive the lists by the end of this month and another 30% by the end of August.
  • With K-12 students continuing to grow regardless of whether they are studying at home or at school, the amount parents plan to spend on clothing is down only slightly at an average $234.48, compared with $239.82 last year. Traditional school supplies such as pencils and paper are expected to average $131.37, up from $117.49.
  • Among college shoppers, 60% plan to buy electronics, up from 53% last year, and they expect to spend more at an average $261.52, up from $234.69. Dorm furnishings average $129.76, up from $120.19, while clothing should be almost unchanged at $148.37 on average, compared with $148.54, with school supplies at $83.78, up from $71.92.
  • Like K-12 families, the largest share of college shoppers (43%) plan to make purchases online, but the number is down from 45% last year. 


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