“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 — and it comes amid heightened uncertainty for the sector. More than a dozen major chains have already filed for bankruptcy since the pandemic, and many others are on shaky ground as they enter the critical back-to-school season, which is expected to bring in more than $100 billion.
National chains are rushing to salvage sales by revamping displays, stocking up on high-demand items like face masks, hand sanitizer and thermometers, and adjusting their marketing to appeal to homebound students and cash-strapped parents.
Though some items, like backpacks, calculators and extra-long twin sheets for dorm room beds, are languishing on store shelves, the National Retail Federation (NRF), an industry lobbying group, expects back-to-school sales to reach record heights as parents shift spending on big-ticket items like computers and desks.
Overall spending is expected to grow to about $800 in households with K-12 children and $1,100 with college students, the group said, as families prepare for virtual learning. It expects school and college spending to hit a record $101.6 billion, a 26 percent increase from the $80.7 billion spent last year.
“Families are planning for all possible scenarios,” said Katherine Cullen, director of retail and consumer insights for the NRF. “Everything is undergirded in uncertainty: Kids might need backpacks and lunchboxes, but they also might need tablets and headphones because they might be learning virtually for at least part of the semester.”
The shift deepens the gap between thriving tech-heavy retailers like Best Buy that have seen brisk demand during the pandemic, and apparel retailers and mall chains that have been most impacted by dramatic drops in consumer spending and foot traffic. Back-to-school technology sales are expected to grow 28 percent this year, even as overall spending remains flat, according to Deloitte.
Walmart is advertising electronics under $30 on its home page, while Target is promoting headphones and WiFi routers for “at-home learning.” Best Buy has created what it calls a “parent hub” filled with product suggestions and tips for virtual schooling.
Sales of desks and chairs have tripled at Bed Bath & Beyond in recent weeks, as it shifts focus from outfitting dorm rooms to helping college students redecorate their childhood bedrooms for the semester.
“Students may be taking courses online at home, but they still want a workspace that’s commensurate with what they would have on campus,” said Joe Hartsig, the company’s chief merchandising officer.
College-shopping displays in the front of stores now include such items as face masks, thermometers and cleaning products. They also promote lower-priced items like $20 coffee makers and toaster ovens, and offer college students 20 percent off all purchases through September.
The company, which is tracking the reopening plans of the country’s 100 largest colleges, began its back-to-school sales in July and has converted one-fourth of its stores into fulfillment centers for online orders.
“Three, four weeks ago, we started really coming to the realization that this could be our new reality,” Hartsig said.
Uniform giant French Toast, meanwhile, is making more hoodies and sweatpants and has started manufacturing masks using fabrics originally intended for polo shirts. It is also offering the steepest discounts in its 35-year history.
“We had our plans for what we thought would be a normal back-to-school season but realized quite quickly we had to change those plans,” said Matthew Buesing, vice president of marketing for the company, which sells directly to thousands of schools as well as major retailers. “We’ve undergone big changes but still don’t know what the next two months are going to hold.”
Even in areas where schools are reopening as usual, parents say their needs have changed. They’re buying fewer uniforms — school may be open now, but they’re preparing for the possibility it may close midyear — and more masks, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes.
In New Albany, Ind., Adam and Michelle Welp bought all the usual items for their two children, ages 8 and 13. But their Catholic school, which opened last week, also required reusable water bottles and beach towels, and asked parents to individually label each school supply, down to the crayon, to avoid cross-contamination.
“We spent the same amount we usually do, but we also know there’s the possibility that we could have to buy more items later if we go virtual again,” said Michelle Welp, who teaches music at her children’s school. When the campus closed in March, she and her husband cobbled together personal laptops and school-issued Chromebooks for assignments, and bought a dance bar and mat so their daughter could continue dance lessons virtually.
Although sales of backpacks have stalled, executives at JanSport say they’re seeing more demand for lunch boxes — a growing necessity as many school cafeterias remain closed — and fanny packs. When students do buy backpacks, they’re gravitating toward larger styles, according to spokeswoman Monica Rigali.
“Those who are in the market to buy are choosing larger bags that can hold everything: their laptop, books, notepads, water bottle, lunch and snacks,” she said. “People want to avoid community storage, so they’re using backpacks as lockers."
Claire’s, the accessories chain popular among tween girls, has scaled back on backpacks but invested heavily in face masks in tie-dye and leopard print fabrics. Also among its bestsellers: mini bottles of hand sanitizer.
“People still don’t know if they’re going to go to school or not, so we have to be accommodating in every way,” said Julia Rimes, a spokeswoman for Claire’s.
Sayuri Shimada, a high school English teacher in San Lorenzo, Calif., used to spend more than $1,000 on back-to-school shopping — clothes for her teenage sons and supplies for her classroom.
This year, though, she’s spent just a few hundred dollars on a webcam for her kids and T-shirts her boys, ages 13 and 16, picked out on her phone. She’ll be conducting class virtually for at least the first six weeks, so she’s adapting accordingly: buying blouses but not pants, and a selfie stick so she can take videos for her students while walking.
“It’s a completely different back-to-school season,” the 46-year-old said. “Normally we’d go to Target for school supplies and do one big trip to the mall to buy clothes. But this year: No. We’re just going to wait."