MILWAUKEE – The back-to-school shopping season, second only to the holiday season in terms of consumer spending, has been thrown into uncertainty bordering on chaos as parents and retailers do their best to plan for what school will look like in the coming weeks.
Set against the backdrop of a highly contagious viral pandemic and the devastation it has woven across the U.S. economy, 2020’s back-to-school season is unlike any other.
“It’s the most challenging time in history for back to school,” said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, a consumer consulting firm in New York City.
The back-to-school season is “a critical catalyst that the country needs for an economic comeback whether it’s Wisconsin, the Great Lakes region or anywhere across America,” Flickinger added.
Whether back to school ultimately serves as a jump-start to a pandemic-ravaged economy remains to be seen.
“What retailers have to do is understand the downdraft of back to school and catch the updraft of selling more goods related to living, learning and working from home,” Flickinger added.
Still, the best anyone can do at this point is make an educated guess.
“Most parents don’t know whether their children will be sitting in a classroom or in front of a computer in the dining room, or a combination of the two,” Matthew Shay, president and chief executive of the National Retail Federation, said in a statement.
It’s unlike anything anyone has ever seen.
“How do you forecast who needs new jeans or sneakers to wear to school and who doesn’t because they are going to be staying at home?” said Dick Seesel, principal at the Mequon, Wisconsin consulting firm Retailing in Focus and a former retail industry executive. “Do they still need school supplies if they are studying at home? Maybe. But do they need backpacks? Maybe not.”
If you’re in a school system where the students wear uniforms and your school may or may not reconvene, parents and the retailers who sell school uniforms also have to deal with the uncertainties involved in that part of back-to-school shopping, Seesel said.
“The other thing you don’t know, for the schools that are reopening, how long are they going to manage to stay open?” he added. “Nobody’s had to deal with anything like this.”
Toss in high unemployment and overall uncertainty as COVID-19 cases continue to spike and, “Consumers are very cautious right now,” Seesel said. “They don’t know what the next six months are going to look like.
“I’ve never seen anything that has put a dent in consumer demand quite like this,” he added.
Parents left to make choices amid uncertainty
If you think retail forecasters have a tough job, try being a parent who is trying to plan for kids going back to school without knowing whether classes will be in person, online or both.
A recent survey of parents shows there will be plenty of penny-pinching, foot-dragging and angst.
About 64% of 18,000 parents surveyed said they were not excited about back-to-school shopping this year because of health risks going into stores or risks to their children going back into classrooms, according to Piplsay, a crowdsourcing research firm.
More than half (52%) of the respondents in its late July survey said they will spend less this school year than last year.
Brad Wright, a dad of three teens — twin daughters and a son — said his approach to back-to-school spending is the opposite of the panic buying and hoarding seen in the early days of the pandemic.
“You buy a little bit, wait to see what happens, then you buy a little bit more if necessary,” said Wright, of Bellevue, Nebraska.
“You slow play this one,” Wright added. “One pair of Lululemons might make it through the year.”
Lululemon is a pricey active clothing line that teens crave. A pair of pants runs $88 to $118.
Appleton mom and early childhood teacher Amy Nogar is also on the wait-and-see side.
“We haven’t done any back to school shopping yet,” she said. “Before we do any shopping, we’ll see what can be reused from last year.”
One son, a high school junior, “will be doing online learning first semester for sure, so he won’t need much,” she said. His school issued laptops to every student.
Her eighth grader “will be in-person, so we’ll have to get him some things.” He has a hand-me-down laptop if he needs to do remote classwork.
“We’d definitely spend less if both boys were remote learning because we already have the technology,” Nogar said. “We’re fortunate. I can see how it could be a challenge for some families.”
Focus shifts to technology
If remote learning takes over, some parents might be forced to spend more for back to school this year because kids will need laptop computers, headphones and things such as flash drives, printers and new routers for home Wi-Fi connections.
Retailers have pivoted to meet that demand should it occur.
“Toward the end of the spring semester, we saw a huge uptick in electronic items, like headphones and chargers and headphone sets with microphones attached,” said Phil Kelley, store director at the Meijer in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
Just about anything associated with learning at home or attending school virtually has been selling, he said.
Michigan-based Meijer, which has stores throughout Wisconsin, has adjusted quickly to changes in the back-to-school marketplace.
“We’ve had to be a little more nimble,” Kelley said. “It is a whole different landscape out there. But it is what it is. We have to react to it.”
All of this has to be done while rigorously adhering to safety standards in stores.
“The safety side of it is still job one right now,” Kelley said. “We have to take care of our customers and our team members.”
Supplies of electronic gizmos and laptop computers seem to be holding steady even as demand rises.
“We can tell you that we are seeing increased interest for our technology solutions from education given the transition to virtual learning and are utilizing our supply chain experience … to fulfill orders as efficiently as possible,” according to a statement from computer maker Dell.
While waiting to decide on making clothing purchases, you might want to act quickly if you’re in the market for upgraded technology to accommodate at-home learning. “If you see it on sale, get it,” Flickinger said. “The inventory levels are really under pressure.”
Menomonee Falls-based Kohl’s has also shifted to meet the uncertain marketplace.
“Families are … spending more time at home, and we are offering educational toys, desk accessories and technology categories,” Julia Fennelly, a Kohl’s spokesperson, said in an email. “We know that things are fluid and will adjust accordingly based on where we see consumer demand.”
Supply chain hiccup
One Menasha-based kids clothing company is relieved that some families are delaying back-to-school purchases. Supply chain kinks during the coronavirus shutdown means the fall clothing line from Lemon Loves Lime hasn’t been shipped to stores so far.
Lemon Loves Lime normally ships back-to-school clothes in July. This year they’ll arrive in September. The company’s clothing is sold through retailers in 41 states.
“Our factory (in Peru) was closed down for three months because of COVID-19. This season we’re super late,” said designer Joy Cha, owner of the business with husband Bill Banti. “If COVID is slowing down a bit, we’ll be back on time with our spring/summer 2021 line.”
Lately, there have been days when their own retail store, on Menasha’s tiny downtown Main Street, does more sales from its ice cream counter than from its racks of colorful cotton knits for girls. Sales are slow.
Before COVID, the company had an annual sales volume of about $2.5 million. Now it’s about half that. They cut expenses and leaned on PPP money and small business loans to make it through.
“This is like ‘Survivor,’ ” Cha said. “Bill and I think we can pull through this.”
They made a smaller fall line and publicly took a positive spin on it.
“We have produced very limited quantities this season. Pre-order early for your child’s sizes,” they told parents on their Facebook page.
Cha said they’re lucky because skipping new clothes for back-to-school is often not an option.
“Our industry is fortunate because kids grow and need the next size up.”
The challenges for retailers and parents are likely to continue.
“It’s probably the strangest year, not only in the retail business, in anybody’s collective memory,” Seesel said. “I don’t think anyone has lived through a year like this before.
“The anxiety hanging over everything is challenging for people to live with.”
Sarah Hauer of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
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