Retailers, Prepare: 6 Back to School Shopping Predictions for 2021


Heather Hudson

May 04, 2021

The ‘most wonderful time of the year’ is fast approaching. How will consumers tackle back to school shopping in 2021?

The events of the last 18 months have helped Canadians prepare for anything. Although vaccines and increased safety measures are set to change the game, parents won’t soon forget the way their kids boomeranged back and forth between school and home last year. It might be a tale of two (types of) shoppers as households stock up on school supplies for both in-school and virtual learning.

A 2020 Deloitte survey of 1,200 parents found that they planned to spend an average of $102 on school supplies, $216 on clothing/accessories, $395 on computers and hardware, $316 on electronic devices and digital subscriptions. This already represented a shift in spending toward technology. After the year we’ve had, we can expect additional changes and demands.

Here we outline some key predictions about back to school spending behaviour in 2021 to help retailers prioritize everything from inventory to marketing.

People will likely buy in bulk.

Who can forget the great toilet paper hoarding debacle of 2020? While it’s unlikely that consumers will fear a scarcity of school supplies, Covid restrictions have changed the mindsets of many shoppers. Rather than picking things up as they need them, families are more likely to stock up on many items (and more of them) in fewer shopping trips.

Retailers who sell back to school merchandise are well aware of the run on things like pencils, calculators, and notebooks in August and September. But, this year, it might make sense to keep an even larger inventory and consider stocking even earlier. While you’re at it, bring in school-adjacent products that make things easier for your customers, including snacks, clothing, weather-related gear, and educational games to help shoppers accommodate their mission of shopping more infrequently. Since they rarely step into a store, they may be more suggestible when they’re there.

Online shopping still rules.

After a year of pandemic-related retail restrictions, many consumers hopped online to do a lot of their shopping, from groceries to clothing to household supplies. And since retailers stepped up their e-commerce game to make it easier than ever, we can expect that a lot of shoppers will continue to enjoy the convenience of buying online.

It’s critical to ensure your website is a fast, mobile-friendly hub where it’s easy to point, click, and pay. Things to double check ahead of the back-to-school season include: Site performance – is it lightning fast, up-to-date, and as easy to use on a phone or tablet as it is on a computer? Product descriptions – are they clear, well-written, accurate, and include important specifications like size, measurements, and dimensions? Photos and other images – do they load quickly, accurately represent the product, and are they zoomable so all shoppers can get a good look? Back to school marketing – are you creating a back to school page for one-stop shopping?

Virtual school supplies may be more popular.

To be on the safe side, many Canadian families are expected to keep their kids at home for at least one more school year. Now that they’ve had one bumpy year under their belt, they may be more intentional about setting up an ideal learning space at home.

Prepare for an uptick in purchases like:

  • Desks
  • Ergonomic desk chairs
  • Lighting
  • Bookshelves
  • Paint and décor (for sprucing up the “classroom”)

Technology will win the (retail) day.

If the pandemic has taught consumers anything, it’s that technology is mandatory for learning at home. Can a kindergartener “go” to school from home? They sure can – with a durable laptop and mini headphones. Can a family of four simultaneously operate on separate digital platforms all day, every day? With high-functioning computers and possibly Wifi boosters, it works!

Printers, scanners, webcams, chargers, and other digital devices were the VIPs of the last school year. Now that they know what worked and what didn’t, consumers will likely invest in the right technology to prepare for the school year ahead. Be ready with inventory they not only want, but need.

Consumers may spend more on downtime activities.

Extracurricular activities inside and outside schools may continue to be up in the air throughout the school year. Parents who were broken down by constant restrictions last year will want to be prepared with activities at home to help their young ones release energy, get exercise, and simply be entertained.

  • Retailers have an opportunity to provide at-home extracurricular activity supplies, grouped by category and age. Consider:
  • Outdoor fun – Frisbees, soccer balls, tether ball, outdoor chalk, skipping ropes
  • Rainy day kits – games, puzzles, books, stickers, baking supplies, spa day materials
  • Suggested titles for book clubs for all ages
  • Craft supplies galore

An emphasis on safety.

Hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, face masks, air purifiers, and even plexiglass dividers for group activities may be on the back to school shopping lists of a lot of Canadians this year. Retailers who anticipate post-pandemic needs may win the appreciation and loyalty of consumers.

Make it easy for shoppers to pick up what they need by grouping Covid safety items together, online and in-store. Keep it at a competitive price point and look for ways to make it fun and playful as opposed to sterile and unsettling.

As we anticipate back to school shopping behaviour this year, it’s important to remember that much of it will be dependent on the state of the pandemic and your local educational system’s response to it. While anything is possible, keeping an eye on the news and considering how it might impact spending habits will be key to addressing your customers’ needs.

This article is provided for informational purposes only. It is not an exhaustive review of this topic. The content is not financial or investment advice. No professional relationship of any kind is formed between you and PayBright. While we have obtained or compiled this information from sources we believe to be reliable, we cannot and do not guarantee its accuracy. We recommend that you consult your personal finance professional before taking any action related to this information. PayBright is a provider of Buy Now, Pay Later (BNPL) solutions. BNPL providers offer plans with a variety of terms and conditions, including interest rates, fees, and penalties, and have different standards for qualifying for loans. Laws and regulations governing BNPL providers vary by jurisdiction. We recommend that you compare and contrast plans, read the fine print, and conduct detailed research into any BNPL provider before using their services.

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Heather Hudson

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