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Back To School 2020

Mary McIlrath

We like to wax nostalgic about what Back to School shopping used to look like. Remember the Staples commercial from just a few years ago? Or in more recent years, the First Day of School social media posts with sad kids and ecstatic, mimosa-wielding parents waiting for the bus? Nobody’s laughing this year. 

Coming off a spring with very mixed results for the success of e-learning, as families were forced to juggle telecommuting, childcare, and supervising teaching, a great deal of discourse and uncertainty surrounds what used to be a reliable milestone. Some school districts have released plans or guidelines, only to revise them quickly based on community feedback. For example, high school students in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, were originally told to plan for a hybrid in-person and e-learning model, then updated that the entire fall would be conducted online—as have many other districts.

Some of the conversation has been very consistent:

  • Back to School in PandemicVirtual school, even using video chats with teachers and classmates, doesn’t deliver the social benefits of camaraderie, eye contact, and trust that in-person instruction fosters. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that in-person schooling is most beneficial, but cautions parents and administrators to know the safety and risks in their local districts and proceed accordingly.
  • Students from lower-income homes without reliable access to broadband suffer the most—and are the most likely to just not participate in e-learning at all. Others lack the hardware or are sharing signal and devices with family members. Their parents may not have the luxury of working from home, and struggle to supervise learning in the little time they have at home.
  • Classmates who need special therapies or instructional support may not be receiving any such services.
  • Students aren’t playing outside as much during stay-at-home orders, and experts fear a spike in childhood obesity due to this and easy access to home kitchens throughout the day. 
  • Everyone agrees that the best-case scenario would be the old case scenario, which simply isn’t an option this year, as outbreaks continue to occur in the U.S. and parents and teachers have a healthy fear of exposure to COVID-19.

What does this mean for Back to School Shopping this year? Amazon’s Prime Day was postponed from July until “soon,” though other retailers who committed to stocking and advertising months ago are proceeding as if this is a “normal” year. 

July 2020 Newspaper Inserts
July 2020 Newspaper Inserts

Deloitte ran a survey in late May/early June and found that parents of K-12 students would be spending $28B on supplies this year.* We asked our YouthBeat kids in July what they’re expecting for this year and they have a range of reactions.

  • You Gotta Eat, You Gotta Get Dressed
    • “I've been getting into fashion. So I might be wearing some fancier clothes, and shorts every day. I'm definitely going to get lots of pencils so I don't have to ask the teacher for some if school comes back. And I definitely want to get a new Jansport backpack.“
    • “Even if I'll be learning at home, my mom plans on buying me some new clothes to start the year. We plan to look for a few new basic shirts to go under other shirts I have. Probably a few new pairs of jeans, I'm specifically looking for a pair of white jeans, hopefully ripped white jeans. I will need a pair of new sneakers most likely because mine are ground down.”
    • “I really think everything is going to be completely online this year. Food and drinks as usual, the same way how you have food and drinks at your house or whatever house you're in. And you'll just be living a normal life except having to do school online.”
  • Shopping Strangeness
    • “I expect my parents to start buying more health supplies like masks and hand sanitizer, and all the normal products like binders, and stuff, but mainly just an emphasis on health products.”
    • “This year we need to get more school supplies than last year. This year there's a sickness, last year there wasn't, so we need to get wipes and stuff like that.”
    • “We probably aren't going to go back to school shopping this year due to COVID. And because we don't even know if we're going to be going back to school this school year yet, or if we're going to be learning from home again.”
  • Consumption Normalcy Prevails
    • “I think we will probably be buying erasers and pencils mainly because we have a big family and we run out of those really quickly.”
    • “This year for school supplies shopping, I’m definitely going to get a couple shirts from Aeropostale.  I always get t-shirts from there, their graphic t’s, I get jeans and sweats are some of the main things I get for pants and leggings. And I normally get about five to 10 pairs of pants and about eight t-shirts for back to school. I always get new tennis shoes because mine are really old and wearing out. We always buy pretzels and goldfish for my locker too. Normal items, binders, paper, pencils, stuff like that. I'll need a new calculator and we get those at like Walmart or Fred Meyer and, that's basically all we'll be buying.”
    • “I feel like this year we're going to get all the same school supplies as normal because you can still use most of them at home. But I feel that we won't be seeing the entire school year out or doing Zooms at home and such. So I feel like we're still going to need them if we actually could go back to school this year, but I just don't see us being able to see the entire year out again on Zoom and doing all this stuff electronically. I think if we do go back, we would need to use some extra school supplies like masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. So if anything, I feel like we're going to more school supplies than normal.”

How can your brand be poised to turn on a dime when your parent and student consumers’ needs change? Tune in for Part 2 of this series in August to hear how parents are feeling about going back to school in some form, and what it means for their spending. And, register now for C+R’s September 30th Consumer Connections panel, when our colleague Mimie Lund will be hearing from parents about how the initial school year has gone, pivots they’ve had to make, and how brands are making the right impact right now.

*Source: Deloitte, July 2020
^Source: YouthBeat Say What? Video Journals, July 2020


Make sure to read Part 2 and Part 3 of our Back to School Shuffle blogs.  Also, please watch our consumer panel from September 30, focusing on Back To School as we continue our Consumer Connections Series. 



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