Analysis: The Pandemic’s Impact on Back-to-School Shopping

Pattern Data Science

August 5, 2021

Every year, as the summertime comes to a close, parents open their pocketbooks to stock up on everything from school supplies to new clothes, and everything in between. According to a National Retail Federation survey, in 2019 a household with children in K-12 schools expected to spend an average of $696.70. Total spending on back to school shopping that same year was expected to be around $26.2 billion nationwide.

To say the 2020 school year was unprecedented is an understatement. Students across the U.S. switched to distance learning solutions, and the back to school shopping season was entirely upended.

Back to school season this year, with most schools preparing to return to normal operation, promises to look quite different from last year’s. But what does that mean for back to school shopping in 2021?

We dove deep into our data to learn more about how COVID-19 impacted online demand for back to school shopping in 2020, how things are trending in 2021 so far, and what that might mean for the future.

Which types of back to school categories received the most online demand?

Most parents split their back to school shopping between online and brick and mortar retail shops, depending on the items on their shopping list. So, to start our analysis, we assembled a few prominent types of back to school products covering several common categories (school supplies, clothing, gear, etc.) to see how online demand compared between them.

From January 2019 through 2021 so far, notebooks and writing pads, as well as markers and highlighters, were the most popular online back to school purchases.

Another smaller “office supply” item, tape, was the third most popular. Backpacks and lunch boxes, however, did see quite a bit of online demand compared to many of the other “smaller” items in our analysis.

From there, demand drops quite a bit to other types of school supplies. Children’s clothing, meanwhile, saw very little online demand compared to other types of school supplies. So it appears that when it comes to buying new outfits for the school year, most parents still prefer in-person shopping.

How did the pandemic impact demand for back to school supplies in 2020?

COVID-19 obviously had a monumental impact on the 2020 school year. First, there were the initial lockdowns of March and April, when schools closed their doors and students finished out the school year via distance learning from their own homes.

Late summer and early fall saw a loosening of certain restrictions around the country, with some students returning to the classroom, while others remained at home.

So, to better understand how COVID impacted demand for school supplies in 2020, we’ll take a broad look at those two major periods: the switch to distance learning last spring, and the back to school season in late summer.

March and April are typically slow months when it comes to school supplies, so it’s no surprise that most categories saw a surge in demand during the height of lockdown compared to the same months in 2019.

Colored pencils saw demand increase by a whopping 186%, while drawing pencils also saw demand more than double. This was almost certainly a combination of at-home schooling as well as a desire to find some activities for a house full of locked-down children.

Children’s clothing experienced an impressive 156% year-over-year increase in March and April 2020. This was most likely driven by the widespread closing of all brick and mortar clothing stores leaving parents who wouldn’t otherwise buy clothes online to turn to Amazon for their child’s summer wardrobe.

The only categories that saw demand decrease during this timeframe were those most likely to be needed in an in-classroom setting: mechanical pencils, D-ring binders, and backpacks and lunchboxes.

But what about peak back to school shopping season? How did August and September 2020 compare to 2019?

Drawing pencils continued to be extremely popular, with demand up 115% during back to school shopping season 2020 vs. 2019. In fact, most categories still saw a boost in online demand compared to 2019. Particularly those most well-suited for at-home learning environments.

Popular in-person learning supplies like D-ring binders, book covers, and backpacks and lunch boxes, all saw demand drop even more than during the spring.

So our primary takeaway here is that parents relied heavily on online shopping for at-home learning supplies both during the earliest months of the pandemic, as well as during the peak back to school shopping season.

But what should we expect during this year’s back to school shopping season? Let’s take a closer look at a few key categories to see what the data has to say.

What do early trends tell us about what to expect for back to school shopping in 2021?

We’re halfway through 2021 and most students around the U.S. are preparing for a return to in-person learning. Will parents be less likely to rely on online shopping now that things have begun to open back up?

Let’s start by examining monthly demand for notebooks and writing pads, which were the most popular item in our analysis in terms of overall demand.

Online demand for notebooks and writing pads was remarkably consistent in 2020, mirroring 2019’s trends just at a slightly increased pace. 2021 started the year with demand at an all-time high. It dropped significantly in March, but has remained consistently above 2020 so far.

This suggests that online demand will remain high for basic school supplies even as things begin to reopen. Let’s take a look at a few similar types of supplies to see if this trend holds up.

Online demand for markers and highlighters was consistently higher throughout 2020, even during peak back to school shopping season. 2021 so far has seen demand match 2020’s month-for-month. Whether it exceeds 2020’s back to school season surge remains to be seen, but will tell us a lot about post-COVID’s trends.

Here we see the massive impact that early lockdown had on demand for colored pencils. Spring 2021 saw demand lag far behind 2020’s, when early lockdown brought a surge in demand. We can safely assume that July and August will bring an increase in demand this year, although early trends suggest it may still lag behind 2020’s high points.

So that’s a look at the types of school supplies that were popular for at-home as well as in-school use, but what about the other types of back to school items?

Let’s start with one of the items that saw demand decrease the most in 2020: backpacks and lunchboxes.

Demand for backpacks and lunchboxes dropped dramatically in March 2020 and remained behind 2019’s trendline for the remainder of the year. So far this year, it appears that demand has recovered, and is trending well ahead of 2019’s pre-pandemic levels.

We expect to see demand skyrocket in July and August after last year’s lull, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on this category in the coming months.

D-ring binders, another popular “in-class” item, shows a similar trend to backpacks and lunchboxes. Demand this year has hovered close to what we experienced in 2019, and ahead of 2020, but the real test will be how the next few months pan out.

Finally, let’s examine online demand for children’s clothing:

Here we see the inverse of the trends from the previous charts. 2020 actually saw online demand surge during the height of the pandemic and again during the back to school shopping season.

June 2021, meanwhile, saw online demand plummet to below both 2020 and 2019’s figures. This may be a slight anomaly, or it may be due to a surge in demand in brick and mortar children’s clothing shopping as more stores have begun to reopen.

In closing, it appears that online demand for back to school items will be heavily dependent on the type of school supply. It appears there may be some pent up demand for certain types of back to school supplies that parents were able to skip out on purchasing last year. Some items appear to now be part of a new online shopping routine, while others look to have been only temporary online solutions while waiting for a return to in-person shopping.

A lesson for brands

Our data shows that COVID-19 has had a major and long-term impact on online demand for all types of school supplies.

Understanding the factors that influence consumer behavior can help brands better understand how to forecast demand for their products on online marketplaces, and even inform product design and marketing strategy.

For example, we may see the back to school shopping season begin much earlier than in previous years due to a combination of pent-up demand and worries about potential supply-chain delays.

Some back to school items may see demand skyrocket as more students return to classrooms, while other items may become less popular as fewer students rely on distance learning.

To stay up to date on consumer behavior and ecommerce news, info, and trend analyses, be sure to subscribe to Pattern Insights on the right.

And, if you’d like to learn more about how you can best leverage our data to help your brand win online, holiday or not, schedule a demo today.

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Sept 6, 2022

Global Ecommerce Weekly News: 6th September 2022

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Aug 30, 2022

Global Ecommerce Weekly News: 30th August 2022

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Aug 23, 2022

Global Ecommerce Weekly News: 23rd August 2022

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