back to school shopping trends

Back-to-school shopping trends 2020: COVID-19’s effect on purchasing habits

The 2020 school year is unlike any other in U.S. history. School districts have been left to their own devices to determine how to reopen amid a global pandemic, with many choosing to delay the start of school until now. As classes return, many teachers are operating remotely or seeing students just a few days per week, resulting in the need for fewer supplies. In some states where schools are open for in-person classes, parents not only have to buy pencils and notebooks, but also hand sanitizer, masks, computers, and desks. In order to prosper during these ongoing and uncertain back-to-school circumstances, retailers and brands need to adapt to evolving shopping trends.

Shopkick, one of America’s leading mobile rewards apps, has been keeping a pulse on back-to-school shopping trends throughout the COVID-19 crisis to help businesses big and small navigate the changing retail landscape.

How COVID-19 Has Changed Back-to-School Shopping Trends

Below are some key back-to-school shopping trends retailers and brands should be aware of as they continue to deploy school-focused marketing campaigns, targeting students and teachers who may need to shift from in-person learning to remote learning or vice versa. 

Shoppers Are Willing to Brave the Stores.

One might assume online shopping is exploding, given the presumably increased risk of virus exposure out in public. However, only 1 in 4 shoppers plan to do more online shopping this back-to-school season. In fact, Shopkick’s most recent COVID insights survey shows that 92% of consumers are still shopping in-store. 

According to Shopkick research:

  • 66% of respondents plan to do their back-to-school shopping in-store. 
  • 95% of consumers surveyed said they will primarily shop at big-box retailers, followed by office supply stores (37%), club stores (25%), drug stores (24%), and grocery stores (20%). 
  • 33% of parents and grandparents only plan to make two trips, while 29% of teachers plan to make five or more trips. 

Given the dynamic nature of the 2020 school year, you can expect to see this back-to-school shopping season lasting well beyond the beginning of the school year.

Consumers Are Making Fewer Trips and Spending More.

Nearly 3 out of 4 consumers are taking shopping trips less often than before the COVID-19 pandemic as a form of social distancing, but nearly 80% said it’s not because they’re shopping online more frequently. According to Shopkick surveys, 40% of consumers plan to spend less than $75 per child, and 34% plan to spend $76-$150. In the carts this year, consumers plan on primarily buying hand sanitizer (97%), cleaning wipes (89%), paper products (73%), masks (71%), gloves (44%), and disposable cutlery (44%). 

Similarly, a Deloitte study found:

  • The average back-to-school spending is likely to dip 5% in the usual categories.
  • Households say they’ll spend an average of $492 on school supplies this year.
  • However, overall spending is predicted to rise 2% to $529 per household.
  • The computer and hardware category is largely driving the 38% rise in spending.
  • Electronic gadgets and digital subscriptions are also up 4%.
  • A new category—home (furniture) and health (masks)—added $61 per household.
  • College students will spend even more—an average of $1,345.
  • Back-to-school college spending increased 6% for high-income parents.
  • College spending dropped 12% among the middle class and 4% among low-income.

Mass merchant stores that are most likely to have everything in one place (like Target, Kohl’s, and Walmart) are capturing 75% of the K-12 and 81% of the college market. Most parents typically like to get a jump on back-to-school shopping in late July or early August, but the uncertainty of many school’s reopening and continuation plans has delayed trips, and will even cause parents and teachers to make multiple trips as the need for certain supplies change. Bulk buying is an even more likely back-to-school shopping trend in the coming weeks.

Kids Will Most Likely Skip the Trip. 

When parents were asked how their shopping trip will be different in 2020 compared to 2019, 30% said they’ll be leaving the kids home.

In order to maintain influence, brands and retailers will need to shift some of their child-centered messaging out of the aisles and onto TV or online spaces where kids are. They’ll need to appeal to parents through email, digital ads, and mobile marketing campaigns to get into the minds of buyers.

Convenience and Price Drive Decision-Making.

Smaller brands with positioning in major retail outlets will have an advantage this year, as long as they can keep products stocked on the shelves and/or compete in terms of pricing.

Shopkick found:

  • 80% of consumers regard “getting the best price” as their top priority. 
  • 54% of consumers are spending less than at the start of the pandemic. 
  • 38% of respondents plan to spend most of their back-to-school shopping budget on remote learning tools. 

The choice of a shopping venue was determined based on convenience (distance from home and ease of shopping) for 39% of consumers, followed by safety precautions of the retailer (22%), price (18%), and product assortment (17%).

Another study found that price mattered most in choosing where to shop (74%), followed by product availability (63%). Other factors included: free shipping, delivery speed, company treatment of employees during the coronavirus crisis, availability of curbside pickup, company politics, and the desire to support minority-owned businesses.

Mobile Shoppers Save With Reward Apps.

back to school shopping trendsShopping with a mobile device in hand has become popular in recent years, with 61% of shoppers saying their phones were a “very important” resource during their trips.

Both online and offline shoppers can use the Shopkick mobile app to help gain better insight into our partnering retailers and brands (and their products) all while earning points (“kicks”) they can use toward a gift card of their choosing.

Kicks can be accrued by taking a number of actions either at home, on the go, or in-store, like walking into partnering stores, scanning the barcodes of promoted items in-aisle, watching branded videos, flipping through curated lookbooks, and making purchases. 

Will 2020 Back-to-School Shopping Trends Roll Over Into 2021?

School shopping may not consist of the usual lunch boxes and sneakers of years past, but families are doing their best to provide for their students’ needs, even with all the surrounding uncertainty. Shoppers are consolidating their trips and looking for significant value at big-box retailers this year, but they may also be experimenting with new brands and willing to try new products.

Brands and retailers can use the latest technology to reach customers, whether they are at home or in the aisles.

Who knows? Some of these emerging back-to-school shopping trends just may become staples of the 2021 back-to-school shopping season, too.

Do you want to ensure your marketing aligns with 2020 back-to-school shopping trends? Contact Shopkick to learn how you can become a partner and expand your reach, capture greater market share, and reach a whole new mobile audience.

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Image courtesy of alinabuphoto



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Dima Volovik

EVP of Product and Engineering

Dima Volovik is the EVP of Product and Engineering at Trax Retail — Shopkick.

Dima Volovik is the accomplished product and engineering leader who led teams to deliver innovative and commercially successful e-commerce products, marketplaces, and enterprise solutions for Amazon, Comcast, Fandango, and Universal Music. Before joining Trax, Dima was the Director at Amazon, where he led product development and Engineering for Amazon Appstore and Amazon Prime Video, CTO at Fandango, and Paciolan, head of technology at Golf Channel/Golf Now, and Global VP of Direct to Consumer Technology at Universal Music Group. Dima’s expertise includes developing consumer products, marketplaces, and enterprise solutions.

Dima grew up in Baku, Azerbaijan, where he received his MS in Electrical Engineering from Azerbaijan Oil Academy, and he currently resides in Los Angeles, California, with his family.