Back-to-school retail shopper insights

After a year of remote schooling, what should retailers expect from the 2021 Back-to-School shopping season? Watch our latest webinar recording for a behavioral and survey analysis of how consumers are planning their 2021 back-to-school shopping - across channels, retail categories, and more. Or, read on for a short recap of the analysis.


Half the US is fully vaccinated, but over 1 out of 3 have had no doses. Those with 3+ kids (heavy Back-to-School shoppers) are significantly more likely to not be vaccinated (50%, compared to 40% fully or partially vaccinated).


Amazon continues to overperform direct purchases at other retail categories. The retail giant is significantly up (72%) compared to this time 2019, heavily driven by the need to remain at home during peak COVID. 


The shift to digital has facilitated massive growth (vs. ‘19) in 3rd Party Grocery Delivery and Meal Kit spending (241% and 132%, respectively). Outsize performance in these channels overshadows direct spend in channels like Mass and Supermarket, which have seen little to no movement compared to 2019. 


Walmart is facing tougher competition. Amazon and Target are steadily outperforming the retail giant in panel sales, and have been since the beginning of COVID.


Walmart’s underperformance compared to Target is driven by a shrinking pool of “high frequency” customers, as those customers are especially turning to Amazon. Walmart is losing wallet share among these customers at a faster rate than its competitive set. 


Though Amazon experienced a lift during Prime Day in 2021, it continues a trend of each year getting a smaller lift vs. the weeks leading up to it. Even so, Amazon brings in overall more sales than 2018 and 2019 Prime Days and continues its consistent trend of year-over-year growth.


83% of households know how their children will attend the 2021 school year, with half of the total stating “fully in-person”. Rural households are significantly more likely to “not know yet” (22%, compared to 13% and 16% among urban and suburban households, respectively).


As of mid July, most households still had a considerable amount of back-to-school shopping left to do. Rural households are especially lagging (62% are 0-20% done with shopping), likely driven by their uncertainty of school learning style.


2021 Back-to-School shopping is expected to greatly exceed 2020 levels, and at least match 2019 levels. The strongest gains will be seen compared to 2020 (+13.1ppt increase in spending, compared to +0.5ppt net increase in spending vs. 2019).


Not everyone will increase back-to-school spending. Suburban households and/or those that have fully in-person school plans (51% of respondents) are expected to grow their spending the most in 2021 vs. 2019. Fully remote households (8% of respondents) expect to spend significantly less vs. 2019.


Why is spend expected to increase/decrease? Inflation, online / in-person schooling changes, and relaxed COVID in-store policies will be the catalysts of increased spend. This increased spend will be partially tempered by income insecurity / value focus, and unused household supply stock from last year. 


Low prices is the top retailer choice driver (73%), followed by convenient locations (48%). Product variety (36%), quality (32%) and in-stock items (24%) round out the top five drivers, indicating the most controllable levers will include price / promos and inventory management.


Mass and Department stores are most due for a comeback compared to 2020. The amount of retailers visited is still expected to be lower than pre-2020, likely due to trip consolidation. Apparel, Sporting Goods and Home Improvement retailers will likely also see a rebound in 2021.

Many retailers can expect a large percent of their shoppers to heavily, or exclusively, use digital channels. Electronics and Home Improvement retailers saw a higher incidence of shoppers planning to browse and buy online, though the majority of panelists plan to have at least some part of their experience take place through a digital channel. 


Clothing/shoes are the most expected items to see a lift in purchases compared to 2020, especially among those who plan to spend more on Back-to-School shopping overall. These items are also more likely to be purchased in-store, driving home the importance of having items in-stock.


Remote learners have slightly different skews compared to in-person learners when it comes to the items they need the most vs. 2020. Specifically, remote learners tend to emphasize a need for electronics, and less of a need for apparel or paper products. Only a small portion of panelists (15%) find that there is nothing they need more than last year, underscoring the white space available to retailers that can capitalize on shoppers’ intentions. 

Want to dive deeper into this analysis? Watch the webinar recording and download the slides here. 


Next Webinar: The Impact of Inflation on Consumer Behavior


Inflation and supply chain disruptions have increased the prices of consumer goods, affecting virtually everything from gas prices to groceries. As many consumers still struggle to recover from financial setbacks induced by COVID, how will this affect shopper behavior across the retail industry?

Join us on Tuesday, August 24th for an interactive discussion about:

  • How consumer spending has changed relative to pre-COVID
  • Survey results on shopping plans and price sensitivity
  • Which retailers are winning the battle for consumer dollars and why
  • Strategies on how retailers can meet the new needs of their customers

Register for the webinar