Despite Stalled Spending, Back-To-School Gets Closer To Normal

Image above: A Walmart back-to-school ad

A new analysis from the NPD Group shows that despite solid spending in other categories, parents are holding back on school-related purchases. And even as evidence builds that schools are on track to get back to pre-pandemic reality, many adults are still firmly entrenched in the retail realities that came from COVID-19.

Retail sales have been rising, pumped up by inflated prices. NPD Group zeroed in on school-related purchases versus general merchandise and found that the non-school purchases are up 4%. But those related to school have fallen below last year’s levels.

And its survey of consumers finds that 41% say they’re holding out for sales and markdowns.

“Consumers are balancing their return to school, work, and social activities while retaining some pandemic-related behaviors and prioritizing their purchases accordingly,” says Marshal Cohen, NPD Group's chief retail industry advisor, in the report. “Consumers have been more focused on travel and social activities this summer, pushing the 2022 back-to-school shopping peak later. This is another example of here-and-now shopping leading to shallower retail spending peaks, with sales realized over a longer stretch of time.”



In particular, spending remains strong in beauty and the automotive aftermarket -- not exactly calculators and new gym shoes. Consumers are, however, stocking up on portable beverageware, coloring and art supplies.

Eventually, Cohen says, parents will finish their BTS shopping. But as retailers begin to use promotions to attract their attention, “marketers need to continue to entice the acceleration of back-to-school purchasing in general, and create some urgency for apparel, technology, and other high-volume stragglers.”

On the whole, parents are feeling quite hopeful about the school year ahead. A recent poll from the National PTA finds that 80% of parents believe this school year will be better, and 43% say they are very comfortable with kids learning in person again. (That percentage continues to be lower among respondents of color.)

The poll showed an increase in parents who describe their family’s feelings about school as happy, excited, safe and calm. 

Even professionals are encouraged. A recent analysis from the NWEA, an education nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon, finds that the progress kids made in math and reading last school year paralleled pre-pandemic gains in many grades -- despite the disruptions of Delta and Omicron variants.

The gains came across all economic levels.

There’s still lots of lost ground to recover. Student achievement at the end of the 2021–22 school was lower than in a typical year, the National PTA says, with math scores suffering more than reading. And while elementary students made modest improvements, results for middle-schoolers, as well as Black, Hispanic, and Native American students, were most negatively impacted.

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