Back-to-School Shopping Will Experience New Shifts in Consumer Behavior Amid Uncertainty

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According to data from Deloitte consumers plan to spend $10.4 billion online this back-to-school season, up from $8.1 billion in 2019.

For many families, b-t-s shopping is an annual ritual to stock up on backpacks, school supplies and new clothes for the school year. But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic research from Deloitte suggests this year’s shopping will look a bit different. After 12 years of observing the b-t-s season, Deloitte noted in its 2020 b-t-s report that nothing has caused disruption to families, schools, and retailers like COVID-19.

While b-t-s typically marks a time of transition, this year is lingering in a time of uncertainty. For back-to-college shoppers, this uncertainty is influencing overall consumer behavior. In its survey, Deloitte found 62 percent of parents are anxious about sending kids back to college as coronavirus continues to linger. In fact, concerns for health and finances are causing some to reconsider plans for this fall with 30 percent considering transfers to online-only institutions and 29 percent thinking about changing plans to live at home.

“College students across the country are ready to return to campus, but continued health, safety and financial concerns are weighing on families,” said Stephen Rogers, executive director, Deloitte Insights Consumer Industry Center, Deloitte LLP. “As such, parents plan to give their children as normal a college experience as possible with consistent spending for electronics, household products, clothing and traditional supplies. As parents adapt to the new realities of the pandemic, online shopping is poised to make up a greater percentage of back-to-college purchases, with convenience and safety being more important components of this year’s shopping experience.”

Anxiety levels were also high for parents of students grades K-12. Parents reported in Deloitte’s survey that they were “not impressed with schooling this spring” and 43 percent of parents felt children are ready for the next grade. This is expected to drive a shift in category spend toward tech as parents address the new realities of school.

According to Deloitte, online shopping and low-contact options, such as BOPIS, will accelerate in response to concerns of health and finances, consumers said they will seek out affordable and safe ways to shop this season. When deciding where to shop 82 percent said the price was the most important factor, followed by 80 percent naming convenience as their most important criteria. But 59 percent said safety is an important consideration this year.

With safety considerations in mind, consumer preferences are becoming more localized, but mass merchants are continuing to come out on this season.

“With school formats still up in the air for many, the spend is shifting to tech as parents anticipate the possibility of remote learning and the need to supplement students’ education,” said Rod Sides, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP, and U.S. retail, wholesale and distribution leader. “Retailers that can stay nimble and react quickly to changing needs for education amid the challenges of COVID-19, will likely be the ones that will have an opportunity to appeal shoppers this season.”

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