School began last week, but Diane Perry has yet to buy shoes, clothes or a lunch box for her fourth-grader, who’s taking classes online for at least nine weeks.
Instead, she dropped $500 on the cheapest laptop she could find, grabbed a few spiral notebooks at Target and put most everything else on hold. There is no telling when she’ll have a steady paycheck again, or when her daughter’s school in Orlando will reopen. She suspects neither will happen till next year.
“Normally I’d easily spend $700 on school supplies, clothes and a few pairs of shoes,” said Perry, 44, a character attendant at Disney World who’s been on furlough since March. “But this year, I don’t know what she’s going to need, or when. And I’m still trying to figure out how to pay rent and buy groceries."
As the pandemic reverberates across the economy, casting around 30 million Americans out of work, it continues to reshape consumer priorities and force retailers to adapt. With many schools opening virtually, parents are putting off purchases of shoes, clothing and backpacks but are loading up on electronics like laptops and headphones. Even in places where schools are reopening, supply lists look markedly different: Students are asked to bring water bottles (because water fountains are turned off), beach towels (so they can hold classes outside) and fanny packs (for essentials like face masks and hand sanitizer).
Retailers, meanwhile, are facing their biggest test yet: back-to-school is the second-biggest shopping season of the year and a harbinger of all-important holiday sales.