Why back-to-school in 2021 presents unique opportunity to impress shoppers

August 18 2021 by Keith Jelinek, Rick Maicki, Darren Morrison and Frank Jones for Retail Customer Experience

The back-to-school season (BTS) is a critically important selling period — and an opportunity for retailers to reconnect with shoppers before entering the holiday season. COVID has written a new script for schools and businesses in 2021. Consumers have adjusted in significant ways during the crisis since early 2020. Last year, we experienced extensive school closures and education taking a dramatic turn to 'Zoom' learning, along with businesses shifting to a work-from-home model that in many cases has become the new norm. Schools are set to reopen in 2021, but the rise in COVID cases in many parts of the country could impact how consumers shop for BTS and back-to-office (BTO).

BTS and BTO will bleed together this year since most offices won't open until after Labor Day. This should have a significant impact on total spending. Based on an annual survey by the National Retail Federation, consumers will spend record amounts as students — including college level — return to in-person learning. The NRF predicts back-to-school spending to reach a record high of $37.1 billion, compared to $33.9 billion last year. Mastercard likewise expects back-to-school spending to increase by 5.5% over 2020 and 6.7% over 2019.

As we look to the coming weeks entering fall, it will be worth watching how the recent rise in COVID cases will change consumer spending. The environment is fluid, and retailers will need to know their shoppers' preferences when it comes to what they want to buy and, equally important, HOW they want to shop.

Consumer perspective

Physical stores suffered during BTS shopping in 2020, as many consumers were hesitant to shop in store. Reluctance to shop in person and the numerous school closures drastically impacted school shopping last year. Schools are making every effort to open their classrooms, but consumers' approach to shopping may have shifted in recent months.

Several industry surveys taken in early summer showed that consumers were willing and excited to shop more in physical stores. Shoppers like interacting with the product — especially in apparel. Shopping for back-to-school can be a fun family affair. In a 2019 BRG survey on school shopping, 84% said their child picks out at least some of the items to purchase, and 38% said their child picks out most items with limited parental input. Parents were looking forward to a return to normal in 2021. Enter COVID — again.

According to a First Insight consumer survey cited by CNBC, shoppers are growing more concerned about in-store shopping with the rise of the Delta variant of COVID. S&P's Sarah Wyeth noted, "The tail winds that retailers and restaurants have enjoyed recently may be short-lived."

In the First Insight poll, 64% of those surveyed were "anxious" about the pandemic, an increase from 51% in July; 56% said they feel nervous about interaction with sales staff in stores, up significantly from 43% in July.

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Customer Experience  online survey  Survey Results  consumer spending  Coronavirus  COVID-19  Consumer Purchase Behavior  Purchase Decisions  Consumer Survey  Safety  back-to-school  Customer Experience Management  Customer XM

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