What Retailers Can Expect this Back-to-School Season

While summer is still in full swing, the start of the 2021 school year will be here before we know it. This means that retailers must start preparing for the annual rush of shoppers looking to purchase everything from notebooks and pencils to dorm room essentials.

In the past, retailers could rely on foot traffic data and other indicators from the previous year to gauge what to expect from shoppers during the back-to-school (BTS) season. Such data helped to influence inventory planning, staffing decisions, hours of operation, and much more. However, consumer behaviors ahead of the 2020 school year were heavily affected by the COVID-pandemic — meaning fewer people actually visited stores in person.

Currently, many states have lifted or loosened restrictions on store capacity, mask-wearing policies, and other COVID-related safety measures that deterred shoppers from visiting stores in person last year. This means that in order to get a more accurate read on how consumers are likely to behave this BTS season, retailers should examine trends from the 2019 (pre-pandemic) BTS frenzy.

Here are three trends we predict will carry over into the coming weeks:

(1) Many parents prefer to shop for back-to-school supplies at big box stores – where they can pick up other everyday essentials all in one stop.

Looking closely at cross-shopping behavior, it’s clear that a majority of parents who visited office supply stores were also shopping at big-box retailers like Target and Walmart. In fact, over two-thirds of parents who visited a Staples store during BTS 2019 were also shopping at Target during that time, and 79% of parents shopping at Office Depot during BTS 2019 were also shopping at Walmart.

However, only a small percentage of parents who visited these same big-box retailers were also visiting office supply stores during BTS 2019. For example, only 11% of parents who shopped at Target visited a Staples store during BTS season, and only 6% of parents who visited a Walmart also visited an Office Depot store.

Of note, Walmart was the big box store of choice amongst parents during the 2019 back-to-school season. In fact, 67% of parents who shopped at other retailers during the back-to-school season were also shopping at Walmart during that time.

This data suggests that parents may prefer to hit big-box retailers first during BTS season, picking up whatever supplies they can while shopping for other everyday essentials, and perhaps only visiting office supply chains as a second stop for any items they couldn’t find at the big box store.

(2) Last-minute back-to-school shoppers may be taking advantage of Labor Day sales & promotions.

Everyone loves a deal — even if it means almost waiting for the first bell to finish up their BTS shopping. Indeed, Labor Day is traditionally a huge weekend for BTS shopping. For example, furniture / home stores experienced the biggest uptick of all retail categories during Labor Day weekend 2019 compared to the rest of the back-to-school season (+24%). Perhaps this uptick was largely driven by parents of college-bound students, taking advantage of Labor day promotions on dorm essentials & furniture.

Electronics stores also saw a +15% uptick in traffic during Labor Day weekend 2019 compared to the rest of the 2019 BTS season, perhaps indicating that value-seeking parents were waiting for big discounts on more expensive items like laptops and tablets.

(3) Parents and caretakers of all ages are participating in back-to-school shopping, and they may be more likely to shop earlier in the week and earlier in the day.

During the 2019 back-to-school season, older parents & grandparents (ages 55-64) accounted for 15% of morning shoppers, but only 11% of evening shoppers.

Our data shows that office supply stores like Staples and Office Depot typically see a higher share of traffic earlier in the week (Monday – Friday) compared to weekends (Saturday & Sunday), while other retailers including big box, clothing and department stores tend to see a majority of traffic on weekends.

With more parents working remotely as a result of the pandemic, most retailers have seen an uptick in weekday & afternoon foot traffic compared to the pre-pandemic share of visits. With this added flexibility into their weekday routines, perhaps parents will be even more likely to shop for this upcoming BTS season earlier in the week and during working hours as opposed to weekends and evenings.

Of course, e-commerce will continue to play a major role in BTS shopping as well — but the coming weeks will likely prove to be a significant step toward a return to pre-pandemic normalcy for many BTS supply retailers. Armed with the insights above, retailers of all shapes and sizes can better prepare for the nearly inevitable onslaught of eager shoppers this BTS season.

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