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Aug 12, 2020

Back-to-School 2020 Remains a Multiple Choice Question

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Like many other parents across the country, I have had to make a choice about my daughter’s education for the fall.  Although New York City is offering both online and blended online/in-person options, we have chosen to go fully remote to start.  With this decision looming during the past few weeks, shopping for backpacks or new shoes has not even crossed my mind (personally at least; professionally it certainly has), and now that it’s settled, it will shape what I buy and when. 

Amidst unique and uncertain times, Back-to-School is likely to look very different this year. 

In 2019, almost half of backpack sales were generated within the last week of July and the first two weeks of August. Footwear sales were a bit more spread out, but the same three weeks were key. Sales for the 2020 back-to-school season are likely to be even more dispersed, based on the varied reopening plans, making the season’s boundaries harder to distinguish.  We’ve already seen evidence of this in our early read footwear data.  After a strong June, year-over-year trends softened in late July and week 1 of August.*

As in 2019, we can expect casual sneakers from both active and fashion brands to be the primary back-to-school sales driver.  However, quarantine footwear staples like slippers, clogs (Crocs), and sport slides will remain strong, especially as students in 17 of the nation’s 20 largest school districts will be starting off with online-learning as their only option, and many other across the country will be participating remotely as well. 

Need remains the primary driver, and that will be even more apparent this season.

Since last year’s in-person sessions were cut shorter, and many kids are not attending camps this summer, backpacks may still be in good condition and won’t warrant a replacement, especially if they are only going to be used a few days a week.

Kids may not physically outgrow their backpacks, but as with apparel, the footwear market is typically at an advantage during the back-to-school season because kids do outgrow shoes. Back-to-School is usually a time to buy new for the upcoming school year, but if a child is only going to the school building twice a week and not having gym class, a parent might hold off on buying that new pair of sneakers until the old pair is totally worn out or the child outgrows it. In addition, they might not need multiple pairs of shoes if their usual activities are different this year. 

Marketing, promotions, and inventory will need to be more targeted than ever.

The uniqueness of the upcoming school year brings with it a new set of needs that could pose opportunity. Parents who are buying backpacks may look for them to provide space for masks and sanitizers, along with other essentials that may no longer be shared within the classroom. Last year, we learned that kids’ backpacks are less price-sensitive than many other categories, so parents are not likely to balk at increased prices for added features. In order to maximize the opportunity, marketing to these needs will be critical.

Schedules may change later in the year, bringing a potential lift in categories if kids physically go back to school and sports. Timing and regions will vary, so retailers and brands will need to be prepared to adjust merchandising at a local level like never before.

Brands’ own DTC businesses, off-price players, and online retailers may benefit if consumers are uncertain about in-store shopping or feel in-store assortments are limited. Nearly half of parents and grandparents that have kids in school plan to do more of their back-to-school shopping online and less in-store than they did last year.**

Amidst all of the uncertainty we are living with right now, one thing I do know is that I won’t be the only parent making back-to-school purchase decisions through a very different lens this year. I also know I’ll be looking for brands and retailers to help me bring some excitement into this year’s new learning equation.


Source: The NPD Group/Retail Tracking Service
*Source: The NPD Group/Early Indicator Report
**Source: NPD Trend Tracker Survey done in conjunction with NPD partner CivicScience

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