Back-to-school 2021 shopping off to an encouraging but cautious start

August 9, 2021 – Pittsburgh Post Gazette – When it came to sales, last year’s back-to-school shopping season flunked.

Thanks to COVID-19, there wasn’t much demand for backpacks, lunchboxes or new clothes for the first day of class for most kids, teens and college students.

This year is looking better, according to several local retailers and analysts. But they’re not ready to give it a good grade. Shopping habits are showing the effect of lingering uncertainties surrounding the delta variant.

In June, the National Retail Federation’s annual back-to-school survey conducted with Prosper Insights & Analytics reported that 64% of shoppers returning to school (including college) expected their classes to take place in person this fall. The NRF predicted last month that due to pent-up demand for school clothes and supplies, spending could reach a record $37.1 billion this back-to-school season — up nearly $4 billion compared to 2020.

On the website, searches for kids backpacks and lunch bags are up by 50% and 16%, respectively. Those browsing for dorm-related items, including shower caddies, hampers and desk lamps, also are increasing, according to website data.

But as COVID-19 cases rise across the country, some shoppers are still approaching their back-to-school spending with caution, said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst with market research firm NPD Group.

“It’s a little bit of a mixed bag. We still have the continuation of the COVID lifestyle impacting sales.”

Most back-to-school shopping will happen in August and even September this year, he predicted. Parents will buy things they know their children will need whether learning happens in a classroom or at their kitchen table. Clothes shopping may be the last thing on their list as they wait to see if the uptick in COVID-19 cases impacts back-to-class plans.

Parents “don’t want to have the false start like they did last year,” Cohen said. 

Lots of parents bought school clothes in 2020 that kids didn’t end up needing and then outgrew before they could wear them to school.

Despite the uncertainty, local retailers are encouraged by what they’ve observed so far.

Read more at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.