Back-to-School Pandemic: How Coronavirus Impacted School Shopping in 2020

Summer is pretty sweet, but there’s nothing quite like hitting the stores before a fresh new school year. Kids funnel into classrooms outfitted with new kicks, binders, a stack of Dixon Ticonderogas, outfits, Pokémon cards—all the essentials.  

But what happens when a global pandemic throws the typical back-to-school preparations into a full-on frenzy? When the teaching plan for a pandemic school year teeters between in-person, digital, or some variety of both, do people prep the same way? If instruction goes fully online, are new pants really that important?

It’s no secret that coronavirus has pushed in-person shopping habits out the back door while ushering in ecommerce through the front, and we want to explore just how much this shift in shopping behavior has impacted back-to-school spending and trends—and if these changes are here to stay.

Meet the New Kid, Coronavirus

In the early months of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic crossed the pond, making its way to the US. If you’re like us, we didn’t expect the lasting repercussions of the virus to be wreaking havoc on our day-to-day lives today, nearly a full year later. Not as many annual traditions have been as upheaved, so far, as the back-to-school season. 

Historically, a typical August scene includes kids and parents tossing new clothes, shoes, and school supplies into their shopping cart under the watchful eyes of some comically large cardboard scissors and crayons hanging from the department store ceiling. However, with the pandemic creeping closer to home, back-to-school shopping looked a little heckuva lot different this year.

Millions of students prepared to go to school online while schools (which spent most of the summer making plans to reopen) were unprepared. Even higher ed was hit, with 49% of universities teaching either fully online, primarily online, or a hybrid of both. How do people prepare with the new kid coronavirus wrecking plans for students, teachers, and retailers alike? 

In the first 6 months of 2020, brick-and-mortar stores turned into ghost towns, while ecommerce spending shot up 30.1% in light of stay-at-home orders. This is nearly 2.5X year-over-year growth in spending online, with $1 in every $5 spent on retail by American consumers now being spent on the web. And even though Amazon’s shopping event of the year, Prime Day, was postponed, the marketplace still saw a 28% increase in site traffic in July compared with February 2020.

As much as ecommerce has surged, though, even back-to-school’s biggest players felt the impact. Walmart, for instance, saw a slower start to back-to-school shopping season, likely due to the uncertainty of when school would start and what form it would take. 

However, Walmart is forecasting an elongated season as it anticipates increased back-to-school shopping will also happen this winter (and even spring 2021) if more schools choose to return to in-person classes as cases ebb and flow from state to state.

With back-to-school looking different for everyone in the US this year, consumer behaviors dramatically shifting toward ecommerce, and brick-and-mortar spending in freefall, what are the biggest ways coronavirus has impacted this popular shopping season?

1. People Are Exploring the New(ish) Shopping Frontier: Ecommerce

Imagine the very first shopping mall. In 1955, the first fully enclosed, modern mall opened its doors in Menasha, WI. While that might seem like the most insignificant evolution of shopping today, the transition for shoppers was immense. Automatic doors. Parcel pickup. Aisles 20 feet wide for easy perusal. 

The future was here.

While malls are now commonplace, 70 years ago, shopping at the mall for the first time took a shift in shopping mindset. Today, our consumer behaviors are shifting dramatically once again. We’re still shopping, but instead of hittin’ up the mall, we’re heading to the internet.

Brick-and-mortar retail is still around—and it’s still accounting for the majority of retail sales—but the pandemic’s stay-in-place mandates have cut down on in-store traffic and limited what types of stores can stay open. As a result, more shoppers than ever have headed online for their back-to-school needs. 

More than half (55%) of K–12 shoppers say they’ll buy online this year, up from 49% last year. And 34% of back-to-college shoppers said they’d spend the majority of their budget on ecommerce options, up 6% from last year. 

These stats are are clear indicators that, much like learning in general this year, people are using online resources full force. However, there’s still a lot more proof that people are adapting to this ecommerce way of living. These are more brick-and-mortar drops seen this season:

While back-to-school spending is still strong in 2020, with the average spend per household being almost $100 more than last year, people have shown their resilience and resourcefulness. With brick-and-mortar school shopping nostalgia mostly out of the question, consumers have fully embraced ecommerce this year.

statista bar graph showing back to school spending

2. Back off, Trapper Keeper. Kids Need Different Supplies This Year

It might seem hard to believe that back-to-school isn’t always just about the Trapper Keeper, but 2020 is living proof of this. A whole new variety of products are in high demand, while others have seen their demand drastically lowered, largely due to unprecedented health concerns and the sudden rise of virtual learning. 

Where fun themed binders used to rank supreme, new types of supplies are crowding the back-to-school checklist. 

What’s out?
With most kids in the US rolling out of bed and trudging to the dining room table every weekday during the pandemic, 38% plan to spend less on backpacks than previous years.

What’s in?
Pandemic staples like hand sanitizer and face masks are in hot demand with nearly three-quarters of people planning to stock up for those unpredictable in-person learning days. The shift toward virtual learning is also pushing people to spend more on tech, with 30% of folks citing the need to buy a laptop or tablet for this school year. 

What’s weird?
In a shocking twist, 13.5% plan to spend more on lunchboxes than before. Maybe a lunchbox provides a small bit of normalcy during a day of in-home virtual learning, or maybe there were some truly irresistible boxes this year. Whatever the reason, it’s proof that lunchboxes still got it.

3. School Shopping Is More Deliberate

When it comes to school shopping, people have been making more deliberate choices. What may have been a day of historical spending in your house—an absolute free-for-all of tossing pens, pencils, markers, and notebooks into the shopping cart—may be more restrained throughout this year.

While spending is still high for school needs, partly because of the new tech needed to accommodate distance learning, 1 in 3 shoppers planned to spend less money this year than last year on back-to-school shopping.

Retail spending online is higher than ever, but we can’t ignore the fact that in April 2020, unemployment rates hit the highest they’d ever been since the Great Depression in the US. And while more people are finding work again, the unemployment rate is still nearly 7%. There are currently half as many people without work compared with April, but that is still twice the 3.5% unemployment rate seen in February of this year.

And while people are finding work again, the uncertainty of job security remains. We won’t collectively forget how quickly jobs can be impacted by this pandemic, spurring many people to save now and make more deliberate purchases than spending whatever surplus of cash they have. 

The Future of Back-to-School Shopping

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed everyone out of their comfort zone this year. Traditions have been toppled and replaced with adaptations of what happened BC (before COVID-19)—and back-to-school shopping is no different. But will this glitch in the shopping matrix shift back-to-school trends forever?

There are two ways this could go: 

1. Back-to-school shopping follows the growth of ecommerce in generalMore people than ever have started shopping online, and it’s a shift in behavior that’s here to stay. With everything from groceries to medications to alcohol gaining ecommerce momentum, it’s a clear sign that we’re willing to buy pretty much anything on the web. So, why should school supplies be any different?

There’s also a case to be made surrounding how well online shopping aligns with the increase in deliberate and intentional shopping. As mentioned earlier, the uncertainty in employment and economics has caused people to be more thoughtful with how they spend each dollar. Without tempting end caps, aisle cruising, or checkout lane purchases, it’s tougher to be impulsive when shopping online for a specific item.

The high spending associated with back-to-school shopping has also been a show of massive overconsumption. This year, with no in-person friends to impress in the classroom, maybe we’ve all learned a lesson that we don’t need the newest shoes or the most expensive gear. Is this a trend we can get behind.

2. People return to their normal behaviors for normal back-to-school shopping

Of course, there’s also the possibility that once education returns to full-time in-person teaching, school shopping will also return to normal. With concrete timeframes back in place, such as clear start and end dates, it’s likely that the shopping season will return to its regularly programmed end-of-summer surge instead of a lengthy yearlong escapade.

Plus, without the need for constant masking or sanitizing, back-to-school shopping lists will most likely look more “normal,” outfitted with pens and notebooks instead of face masks and shields.

There’s also the possibility that people collectively rejoice around the normalcy of school shopping once again. Perhaps it was one of those things that we never knew we had until it was gone. 

How to Stay Ahead of Shifting Shopping Trends

The back-to-school season is one of the most popular shopping periods during the year—only outspent by winter holiday shopping. And just like Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the traditional brick-and-mortar school shopping has been usurped by ecommerce. 

For online merchants doling out modern-day back-to-school essentials, this is excellent news for you. But as consumer behavior is shifting, it’s becoming a bigger challenge for online merchants to stay flexible and adapt to modern needs.  

With Route’s customer experience solutions, merchants are able to provide back-to-school shoppers with proactive protection for every purchase (especially high-dollar laptops and distance learning needs), real-time visual tracking, and the easiest issue resolution in ecommerce.

The pandemic has made in-store shopping unsafe and unfeasible, but your online shop can alleviate uncertainty by giving people an incomparable shopping experience. Increase trust with real-time notifications about package statuses, show people where their purchases are on an interactive map, and let them know you have their back should anything go awry between the warehouse and their doorstep. 

Best of all, Route can be added to the checkout page at no cost to merchants. It’s the ability to provide peace of mind and a comprehensive, thoughtful shopping experience that makes this new online life easy. It’s a fool-proof way to protect your revenue and keep your costs low, as well as compete with big retailers like Amazon and Walmart that may offer the safety and security that people lack in these uncertain times. 

Will back-to-school shopping return to “normal” in 2021? We can’t say quite yet. But we do know that with Route, you’ll be ready to make the second-biggest shopping season of the year just as easy and carefree as cruising the aisles at any department store.

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