a bunch of items that are sitting on a table

2021 Back-to-School Retail Predictions

Jamie Grill-Goodman
Editor in Chief
Jamie Grill-Goodman profile picture

Back-to-school shopping this year will feel different than it ever has before. Parents are prepared with gusto to put virtual learning behind them and move on with a fresh start in September. And that includes spending at retailers before dropping their tikes off at the doors and shipping older students off to college. Get all the latest data on the back-to-school season and learn how retailers can craft a strategy to capture their share of back-to-school sales.

a young child sitting in a car

Back to School Spending

U.S. retail sales are expected to grow 5.5%, excluding automotive and gas, during the critical July 15 through September 6 back-to-school period compared to 2020. Compared to 2019, sales are expected to grow 6.7%, according to Mastercard SpendingPulse.

Average spend per student will be up to $270 per student compared to $250 in 2020, with meaningful change in category spend and variation in educational cohort spending, KPMG’sretail consumer survey of 1000 consumers found. Spending for pre-school and college students is expected to spike up 32% and 13% compared to 2020. Spending for students in middle school and high school is only expected to be up 3 and 4%. Additionally, consumers are expecting higher costs due to inflationary pressures.

Forty-eight percent of parents think that back-to-school shopping this school year will be more expensive, according to a survey from Vericast.

After more than a year of remote and hybrid learning, shoppers are ready to shell out more on back-to-school items, with nearly 50% planning to spend between $101-$300, allocating most of their budget towards apparel, a Shopkicksurvey of more than 7,400 consumers finds.

Appealing to Back-to-School Shoppers

More than eight in 10 parents plan to send their children back to school for in-person learning this fall, according to a survey of more than 2,000 parents, conducted by RAND Corporation and commissioned by The Rockefeller Foundation.

51% of parents feel back-to-school shopping will be different this year because the way they shop has changed according to a survey from Vericast. Thirty-five percent of consumers would like to receive deals and discounts to make back-to-school shopping more affordable. A majority of consumers (41%) consider themselves to be practical purchasers; they seek to get the best price or least expensive option.

Consumers have become well-accustomed to the omnichannel shopping experience and this back-to-school season proves no different. Eighty-five percent of Americans say they will use their mobile devices while shopping, for everything from comparing prices to making mobile purchases, according to the Shopkicksurvey.

Department stores, outdoor shopping centers and malls offer a fresh change of scenery for shoppers, according to Mastercard SpendingPulse, which forecasts a 25.3% YOY / 9.5% YO2Y increase in the department store sector as they rebound from last year’s dip in foot traffic. “Buy online, pick-up in store as well as technologies such as contactless will remain important as consumers continue to seek low-contact experiences.

Category Spending

In some ways the 2021 back-to-school season will be a return to traditional in-person learning categories, with increased spending in key retail categories: footwear (up 21%), apparel (up 14%) and school supplies (up 16%), KPMG’s survey finds. Respondents expect to spend less on computers and study-related furniture in 2021 than they did in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While athleisure was the fashion statement of 2020, this year brings the diversification of the wardrobe as in-person schooling, reunions and other events drive consumers to make their social debuts in style,” says Mastercard.  Apparel is expected to grow 78.2% YOY / 11.3% YO2Y.

Amazon Prime members worldwide geared up for back to school by purchasing more than 600,000 backpacks, 1 million laptops, 1 million headphones, 240,000 notebooks, 40,000 calculators, and 220,000 Crayola products during Amazon’s Prime Day event from June 21-22, the company said.

Health and safety remain top of mind according to 90% of consumers who plan to add COVID-19 precautionary supplies to their carts, the Shopkicksurvey finds. Such items include hand sanitizer (79%), cleaning wipes (71%), masks (61%), paper products (55%), and disposable cutlery for lunchtime (21%). Additionally, 60% of consumers plan to spend most of their back-to-school budgets on apparel, trailed by basic school supplies (24%), technology (10%), dorm furnishings (4%), and books (3%). 

Sixty-eight percent of families ranked traditional school supplies as their first or second priority, 50% chose digital supplies and 44% chose PPE as their top or second priority. Just 38% ranked apparel as their top or second priority, according to a Tinuiti and Upwave survey of over 2,000 families with children in K-12 schools. Seventy-seven percent plan to buy masks, gloves, hand sanitizers or extra cleaning supplies for their students.

Still Time to Prepare

While consumers are eager to get a head start on back-to-school shopping 19% say they have already started 42% plan to shop one month prior to the first day of school, followed by 28% planning for two months prior, and 8% planning for one week prior, Shopkick  finds.