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MasterCard: Back-to-school sales to top pre-pandemic levels

school supplies

The 2021 back-to-school shopping season is expected to be a strong one as more kids head back into classrooms and social events return.

Back-to-school sales in the U.S. are expected to grow 5.5% from last year and 6.7% from 2019, according to a forecast by Mastercard SpendingPulse, which measures in-store and online retail sales — excluding automotive and gas — across all payment types. (The company uses nonautomotive spending patterns online and in stores to make retail projections for the period that spans from mid-July to early September.)

Apparel is expected to be one of the strongest categories as consumers look to update their wardrobes amid the return of in-person learning, reunions and other events. Apparel sales are expected to rise 78.2% year-over-year and  11.3% compared to the same period in 2019.

In other trends, Mastercard forecasts department stores, outdoor shopping centers and malls will make a comeback, offering a fresh change of scenery for shoppers. Department stores sales are forecast to increase 25.3% year-over-year and 9.5% compared to 2019.  The report noted that buy-online-pickup-in-store and technologies such as contactless will remain important as shoppers continue to seek low-contact experiences.

As consumers return to brick-and-mortar stores, online sales will ease slightly compared to last year, falling 6.6%, but will be up 53.2% when compared to 2019.  

The anticipated back-to-school sales growth is a continuation of ongoing retail sales momentum, with May marking the eighth consecutive month of total retail sales growth. According to Mastercard SpendingPulse, U.S. retail sales increased 12.2% year-over-year in May, and 10.2% compared to May 2019.  Online sales in May grew 1.1% and 94.8% respectively, compared to the same periods.

“Back to school has always been a prime season for retailers,” said Steve Sadove, senior advisor for Mastercard and former CEO and Chairman of Saks Inc. “This year, the broader reopening brings an exciting wave of optimism as children prepare for another school year, and the grown-ups in their lives approach a similar ‘return to office’ scenario.”

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