Back-to-School Shopping Expected to Hit New Record

Retailers are bracing for an above average back-to-school shopping season as schools return to normal in-person participation in the fall.
Back-to-school shopping

Consumers are expected to spend record amounts for school and college supplies this year, according to an annual survey from the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics. In total, back-to-school spending is expected to reach a record $37.1 billion, up from $33.9 billion last year and an all-time high in the survey's history, according to NRF. 

That’s good news for retailers still experiencing lower-than-average foot traffic as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some consumers also still have more cash than usual in their pockets after receiving government stimulus earlier this year and in 2020. As much as 43% of back-to-school shoppers said they plan to use some of their stimulus funds to make purchases for the upcoming school year. 

“The pandemic forced parents and their school-aged children to quickly adapt to virtual learning, and they did it with an incredible amount of resolve and flexibility,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said. “We enter the new school year with plans to return to the classroom and retailers are prepared to help Americans find and purchase whatever they need to make this transition as seamless as possible.”

The back-to-school shopping season usually begins in mid-summer, when retailers begin putting school supplies on sale. Fortunately for retailers, summer shopping led to a rise in retail sales in June after a decline in May sales. Plus, more than half of K-12 and college shoppers have already begun their back-to-school shopping. A significant portion (39%) of shoppers took advantage of summer sales events, such as Amazon’s Prime Day, Target Deal Days and Walmart's Deals for Days to purchase items for the school year.

For the upcoming school season, families with children in elementary school are expected to spend an extra $59 this year, reaching $849.90 on school items on average. College students and families will spend $1,200.32 on college or university items on average this year, up $141 from a year earlier. The growth for this group comes from an $80 increase in spending on electronics and dorm furnishings. In total, back-to-college shopping is expected to reach a record $71 billion, up from $67.7 billion in 2020, according to NRF.

The majority of K-12 shoppers--76%--are still waiting for school lists of items before they do the bulk of their shopping. However, this year there is already a focus on purchasing electronic items, with shoppers spending an average of $21 more on these items compared to 2020. Almost half of shoppers plan to purchase laptops, 32% will purchase calculators and 31% will purchase tablets. Shoppers will also spend an average of $19 more on clothes. 

“Consumers are spending more on items like electronics and clothing as they make plans for students to resume activities in person this fall,” Prosper Insights Executive Vice President of Strategy Phil Rist said in the report. “For those in particular with children in elementary to high school, shoppers are putting the largest portion of their budgets toward electronics, new clothes and accessories.”

Even as states reopen and COVID-19 pandemic restrictions continue to ease in many states, many K-12 consumers (48%) will still use online shopping for back-to-school purchases. Another 48% will visit department stores, 44% will visit discount stores, 41% will visit clothing stores, 27% will visit office supply stores and 27% will visit electronics stores. Among college students and their families, the top destinations are online (43%), department stores (33%), discount stores (30%), office supplies stores (29%) and college bookstores (28%).