Back-to-School Landscape Evolves Post-Pandemic in Spending, Trends, Thinking
As the apparel industry continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and normalcy returns more each day, the back-to-school season is in full swing and even had a jumpstart this year with new trends, record spending, and a shift in buying power and consumer thinking.
According to the annual survey released by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights and Analytics, consumers plan to spend record amounts on school and college supplies this year. Families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average of $849 on school supplies—a nearly $60 increase over last year—and families with college students plan to spend an average of $1,200—an increase of $141.
“As of now, most families are planning on a return to in-person, and that is fueling different purchases and more purchasing than last year,” said NRF Senior Director of Industry and Consumer Insights Katherine Cullen. “Children heading off to school—they may not have needed school uniforms last year. They may be purchasing those items this year.”
This year, back-to-school spending is expected to reach $37.1 billion, while back-to-college spending is expected to reach $71 billion. Both totals are records and up from $33.9 billion and $67.7 billion, respectively, over 2020, and both types of spending have increased for three consecutive years. Back-to-school-spending numbers are actually at an all-time high in the survey’s history since it was first conducted in 2003.
“Consumers expect to spend about 6 percent more compared to last year,” said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz. “Of course, the amount of spending for college is much greater than for grade school.”
The annual survey also stated that 26 percent of all back-to-class shoppers had already begun to buy items for the new school year in June. The number is up from 21 percent in 2020 and 17 percent in 2019.
“A lot of freshmen last year, a lot of college students, may not have made that traditional move out of their parents’ home onto a college campus,” Cullen said. “This year that’s of course possible, so we have students who may have held off last year, and they’re expecting to buy items like a microwave, bedding and other furnishings.”
Despite a return of foot traffic to retail locations, online shopping held strong and is a top option of purchasing for 48 percent of K–12 shoppers and 43 percent of college shoppers. Other top destinations to shop for back-to-school are department stores, at 48 percent; discount stores, at 44 percent; clothing stores, at 41 percent; and office-supply stores, at 27 percent. Top back-to-college destinations are department stores, at 33 percent; discount stores, at 30 percent; office-supply stores, at 29 percent; and college bookstores, at 28 percent.
The increased spending is also a result of shifts in consumer thinking and buying power, according to Computer Generated Solutions’ 2021 “State of the U.S. eCommerce Consumer Survey.” The survey showed an affinity for local shopping and items made in the USA.
The main culprit for the change in shopping habits is Generation Z, which includes those born between 1997 and 2012. As Millennials, born 1981–1996; Gen X, born 1965–1980; Baby Boomers, born 1946–1964; and the Greatest Generation, born prior to 1946, have shown far less deviation from the norm, Gen Z is changing the narrative with its rising buying power, estimated to be $323 billion.
“As pandemic-related fears dissipate with the continued rollout of the vaccine, new trends in consumer-shopping habits have emerged,” said CGS President and Chief Executive Officer Phil Friedman. “As the shopping experience continues to evolve, brands and retailers need to take notice of the preferences of younger consumers. Generation Z and Millennials have different shopping habits and motivations for buying that continue to affect the post-pandemic retail industry.”
Gen-Z buying habits are creating new trends in the e-commerce landscape, balking at online marketplaces like Amazon and preferring shopping destinations that reflect eco-friendly and sustainable values. Only 37 percent of Gen Z is buying from online marketplaces compared to 67 percent of the other generations. Gen-Z consumers are also five times more likely than Baby Boomers to use secondhand sites such as eBay or ThredUp for nonessential items.
“The pandemic, naturally, had a lasting impact on consumer habits and shopping behaviors,” said Paul Magel, CGS president of the business-applications division. “Brands, retailers and their customers experienced the scarcity and delay of goods over the last year. Now, consumers have had a chance to take a step back and identify how and where they wish to spend. For some generations, we are witnessing a gravitation toward sustainable and locally made goods, for others it is secondhand marketplaces, while other age groups are going back to what they know, whether that be department stores or the large online marketplaces.”
Gen Z is also motivated to purchase for quality, with 27 percent reflecting this buying preference, and influencer endorsements resonating with 21 percent of respondents. Another place Gen Z differs is in something called “revenge shopping”—defined as consumers making up for lost time with increased spending. Eighty-two percent of Millennials and Gen Z have splurged or plan on splurging on a purchase this year, while 64 percent of Baby Boomers said they have not taken part in revenge shopping or splurged.
As retailers continue to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of consumer tastes, it’s clear that back-to-school shopping is evolving. It’s no longer all about giants like Amazon, while retail stores can’t rely on traditional items as the younger generation is commanding a different shopping experience. With buying power increasing and a continued paradigm shift in the thought process of consuming, the back-to-school season is poised to continue to make changes over the coming years.