Retailers

Back-to-School 2021, By the Numbers

Retailers court eager-to-shop parents, students while contending with lingering inventory, labor challenges
Back-to-school display at Target
Photograph: Shutterstock

With millions of students across the country heading back to school in the next six weeks—some in-person for the first time in 17 months—back-to-school season for retailers is ramping up quickly. Forty-three percent of households with children at home expect to spend more on back-to-school shopping this year than they did last year, with an additional 47% predicting they'll spend about the same, according to a June survey from retail market researcher IRI.

Retailers are eager to see the pent-up demand that sent clothing and personal-care sales surging this spring translate into spending on made-to-be-seen school supplies and apparel as parents and kids embrace a more-regular start to the school year. 

Back-to-school can help set the tone for the rest of the year, consultancy KPMG noted, especially if a retailer delivers unexpected finds and on-demand, omnichannel flexibility that can deepen customers' loyalty and trust heading into what are expected to be big fall and winter holiday shopping seasons. "The challenge will be how to take advantage of demand while effectively managing the risks of adequate inventory levels, store labor shortages and stretched supply chains and delivery models," KPMG retail strategists wrote in the firm's recent back-to-school consumer report.

Who's spending and where this back-to-school season, and how are retailers looking to win over the families and educators ready to check off their back-to-school lists? Here's a look:

  • $268: The amount that consumers expect to spend per student for back-to-school this year, up from $247 in 2020, according to KPMG.
  • 42%: Share of consumers shopping for back-to-school who expect to spend as much online as in-store for back-to-school purchases, according to IRI and 210 Analytics' June grocery-shopper survey. A just-larger share, 43%, say they'll do all or most of their back-to-school shopping in-store.
  • >$50,000The annual income of parents who are more likely to shop for school supplies online, according to KPMG.
  • 81%: Share of consumers who believe prices are somewhat or much higher now than they were prepandemic, IRI and 210 Analytics' June primary grocery-shopper survey found. (The breakdown: 32% said they believe prices are much higher; 49% said they believe prices are somewhat higher.) 
  • 32%: Expected increase this year in spending per student for consumers buying for preschoolers—to $156 from $118 in 2020, KPMG found. "Many families delayed starting early education programs during the pandemic, and school districts across the country are now expecting some of the largest kindergarten and prekindergarten enrollments ever," the report's authors noted.
  • 15: The big number for Target as it courts back-to-college customers: From Aug. 15-21, college students will get 15% off their purchase plus $15 off for every $50 they spend on home essentials. Target in March highlighted plans to continue opening small-format stores in college towns and urban centers to introduce the retailer's "unique shopping experience to new, college-aged guests to form lifelong relationships."
  • 2,400: The number of Walmart stores that will carry products from tween-focused mall staple Justice, the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer announced last week. The new Justice collection at Walmart stores and at Walmart.com will feature more than 140 clothing, accessory, school supply, and bedding and bath items.  
  • $745: Teachers' average annual spending on supplies, despite an average classroom budget of $212 for the 2019-2020 school year, according to AdoptAClassroom.org. Meijer called out this stat in its announcement of expanded discounts for educators this back-to-school season. The Grand Rapids, Mich.-based retailer's annual 15%-off-for-teachers promotion this year will include office furniture and kids apparel. "The upcoming school year may require flexibility, so finding a way to further reduce stress on [teachers'] pocketbooks as they consider their own homes and families for the first day of classes led us to expand the offerings covered by this year's discount," said May Graceffa, director of back-to-school merchandising for Meijer, in a news release.


Maintaining adequate inventory and getting online orders filled quickly and efficiently may be traditional grocers' and mass merchandisers' biggest back-to-school challenges this year, and back-to-school shoppers aren't going to wait around for something they saw advertised online (or need tomorrow) to be back in-stock—be it notebooks or applesauce pouches. "Retailers facing capacity issues and shortages left over from pandemic-era supply chain challenges remain concerned about adequate inventory," the KPMG report's authors noted. "But back-to-school shoppers give themselves little lead time to make purchases and will go elsewhere for supplies if shelves are not stocked."

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