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The upcoming school year—for everyone from preschool through university and graduate programs—is still a top conundrum for government officials, teachers, parents, and students. Approximately only 55% of U.S. K-12 schools and 65% of U.S. colleges having provided tentative reentry plans for the 2020-2021 school year, and many other families are navigating other options, including homeschooling and “pandemic pods” with private tutors.
Exactly what reopening schools is going to look like will vary greatly based on location, class size, and many socio-economic factors. And whatever choice officials or parents make, they’re going to have to spend a lot of money to make it work. Back-to-school shopping has always been a lucrative time of year for retailers, but budgets and necessities are extremely different this fall. The uncertainty around the new school year has parents and students looking for the best ways to prepare for both virtual at-home and in-classroom learning scenarios, which is manifesting itself in several new shopping behaviors.
“Given the uncertainty today, shoppers are planning for the different scenarios: going back to physical classrooms, remote learning, or a mixture of both,” said Susan Schmidt, vice president of PayPal Credit. “This means they are planning to spend money on the usual back-to-school items—apparel, books, school supplies—but also nontraditional back-to-school items, like safety equipment for in-school learning (masks, hand sanitizers, gloves, etc.), as well as more remote learning equipment like printers, laptops, and desks.”
New research from PayPal finds that 40% of parents and 35% college students actually plan to spend more on back-to-school shopping this year. First-year college students, especially, plan to spend 39% more ($732) than the average K-12 parent ($444) on back-to-school shopping this year. But moving to college often requires a lot more equipment and new supplies, from toiletries to technology.
Published Monday, PayPal’s report is based on data collected using an online survey among 1,800 online shoppers across the U.S. in July 2020, including 1,200 parents of K-12 students (600 elementary school; 300 middle school; 300 high school) and 600 college students. The financial services company said quotas were applied to ensure an equal gender split and representation across states.
But everyone will be investing heavily in a new category, at least for students: safety gear. Over 80% of both parents and college students are planning to spend more than they did last year on safety equipment to prepare for school this year. At the same time, both groups plan to spend significantly more on remote learning furniture and home goods as well.
Unsurprisingly, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes were the most desired safety items for people surveyed, although wearable gear like face shields didn’t rank as high on back-to-school shopping lists.
Additionally, parents in cities plan to spend more on safety items and remote learning tools than parents in rural areas, indicating that the wider spread of COVID-19 in major cities has a lot to do with their purchasing decisions.
Given the ongoing need to social distance as well as economic shutdowns still in place in many regions to combat recent surges of COVID-19 cases this summer, most parents and students are going to be doing their back-to-school shopping online rather than in big box stores that typically cater to this demographic. Approximately 73% of students and 65% of parents anticipate shopping online for their back-to-school needs.
Schmidt pointed toward a July 2020 McKinsey report, which found that 70% of consumers are not comfortable going back to “regular” out-of-home activities. “Shopping is clearly a ‘regular’ out-of-home activity, so parents and students are increasingly shopping online and looking for ways to get creative about budgeting, while retailers seek to come back from slowed sales,” she explained.
One especially interesting finding: PayPal says fathers expect to spend significantly more than mothers ($571 vs. $320, respectively) on their child’s back-to-school shopping. Women are widely identified by retailers for driving greater consumer purchasing power within households. But women —especially women of color—are also being disproportionally affected by the pandemic, from increased responsibilities at home while juggling childcare and virtual learning as well as their own careers at work.
With both parents planning for more at-home learning scenarios, Schmidt explained this meant that dads said they expected to spend more on certain items, with a focus on sports equipment and technology: “This means dads are preparing themselves to make larger ticket item purchases that moms previously may not have focused on.”
More must-read retail coverage from Fortune:
- These major retailers are already planning to be closed on Thanksgiving Day because of the pandemic
- Can a seltzer-making company build a better device to help COVID patients breathe? SodaStream thinks so
- At Ikea, a tale of two plant-based “meatballs”
- 3 New York City businesses on what it’s been like reopening in the first U.S. epicenter of the pandemic
- Airlines expand their face-mask rules—but government enforcement is needed, CEOs say
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