Kennedy: Retailers anticipate ‘big’ back-to-school season


Years ago, when Daughter No. 2 was still a kid, I used to tease her around this time of year with retailer sales circulars promoting back-to-school merchandise.

In her mind, summer had just begun and it was downright cruel to raise the specter of returning to the classroom.

In the wake of COVID-19, though, I wonder if her younger self might have a different reaction today, excited perhaps at the prospect of hallways filled once again with familiar sights and sounds after the disruptions of the last two academic years.

Retailers appear ever ready to capitalize.

“[W]e’re planning for one of our biggest back-to-school and college seasons ever,” Christina Hennington, chief growth officer at Target Corp., told analysts in May on a conference call to discuss fiscal first-quarter results and 2021 revenue prospects.

Similarly, “Back-to-school, we think, is going to be big … so we’re leaning into it,” said Lauren Hobart, CEO at Dick’s Sporting Goods, during that company’s quarterly call.

Both retailers talked up new products and marketing campaigns for the back-to-school/college season, which ranks No. 2 behind the Thanksgiving-Christmas holidays for consumer spending.

Indeed, audit and tax adviser Deloitte, in an annual survey released last week, pegs parents’ back-to-class outlay “at its highest level in recent years”: $32.5 billion for K-12 (or about $600 per student) and $26.7 billion for the college-bound (or about $1,460 per student).

The coronavirus pandemic fueled increased spending in technology, according to Deloitte, “creating a new baseline for how and what parents purchase.” As a result, many expect to buy fewer traditional school supplies and more smartphones, tablets and wearables.

Lessons from COVID-created supply chain problems likely will pull spending forward, Deloitte says, with more than half of K-12 families looking to wrap up shopping by the end of July to avoid out-of-stocks.

Consumers also expect to continue some shopping habits born of the pandemic, including BOPIS (buy online, pick up in store) and curbside service, Deloitte says.

Deloitte isn’t alone in its forecast: The trade publication Chain Store Age reported last week that research firm Customer Growth Partners cited government stimulus, pent-up demand and consumer resilience for the record back-to-school sales it anticipates between July and September.

And cable business network CNBC reported in June that Mastercard expects back-to-school sales to beat pre-pandemic numbers, with apparel spending in particular seeing a big jump.

That should elicit a big “Huzzah!” from department stores such as Macy’s, which told analysts on its fiscal first-quarter call that it was “going after a very strong back-to-school” season.

Chief financial officer Adrian Mitchell said the retailer was seeing “early signs … of dressier apparel categories really beginning to return” for both back-to-school and back-to-work – the latter no doubt a buoy to any kid whose parents’ joy at the return to class might be tempered by their own return to the office.

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected]

Categories: Business


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