You’ve got to hand it to Walmart.
The retail giant was first out of the gate with a back-to-school television ad that encapsulated what could be fall’s pandemic reality for K-12 kids: in-person instruction in school buildings, remote learning at home, or a combination of both live and online classes.
“However you go back, we’ve got your back” is the commercial’s tagline, voiced over a snippet of The Temptations’ 1966 hit “Get Ready” (“…so get ready, 'cause here I come…”). The spot shows an elementary-age boy in a face mask walking in a school hallway and, in an alternate scenario, approaching a laptop at home to make a presentation.
Now is the time of year when back-to-school shopping hits its peak, becoming retail’s No. 2 revenue-producer behind only the Christmas holidays. This year, though, it’s “a hot mess,” according to the assessment of several industry observers on the online forum RetailWire when asked to predict how the season will do.
Although product is in stores – pencils, paper, pens, notebooks, backpacks, sneakers, hoodies – the question is whether consumers will buy as they traditionally have when no one is certain where and how instruction will occur amid ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks.
Indeed, consultant Deloitte, in its annual back-to-school survey on spending, reported this month that nearly two-thirds of responding parents said they were anxious about sending their kids back to school because of the coronavirus.
The survey predicted that overall K-12 spending would be flat compared to 2019, at about $28 billion. But Deloitte said outlays for digital products likely would grow at the expense of clothing and school supplies, with the former up 28 percent over last year and the latter down 17 percent.
Parents also planned to buy sanitizer, wipes and other protective items for their kids, Deloitte said, and to do more of their back-to-school shopping online in a nod to their own safety.
The National Retail Federation, which also surveys consumers on back-to-school buying plans, predicted $33.9 billion would be spent on K-12 students, an increase from $26.2 billion last year and a new spending record.
The group reported 63 percent of K-12 families said they expect to buy computers and other electronics this year because many of them believe at least some instruction will occur remotely.
Parents got a taste of that when the pandemic began to take hold in March and schools across the country shifted to online classes for the remainder of the academic year.
Whether instruction in New York is in-person or online for the fall term is still up in the air, with school districts required to submit plans by the end of this week on how they’ll operate in 2020-21.
The state, though, will ultimately decide next week whether schools can physically reopen, tying the decision to regional virus infection rates.
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].