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eCommerce Back to School Shopping Trends for 2021

Shopping for back to school is a yearly tradition in many households. As students slowly begin returning to the classroom, online shopping is expected to skyrocket.

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The 2021 back to school shopping season will be unlike any other. As schools prepare to reopen for in-person classes, eCommerce merchants are already scoping out how to win the attention and business of shoppers while delivering seamless experiences. After a year of upheavals, eCommerce back to school shopping trends are top of mind for brands. 

Back to school season looked remarkably different in 2020. Parents were faced with the challenges of working from home and turning their kitchen tables into remote classrooms. As a result, trends shifted from traditional school supplies to virtual learning supplies like headphones, laptops and faster internet routers. In August 2020, Abha Bhattarai reported for the Washington Post that sales of desks and chairs tripled at Bed Bath & Beyond as the retailer shifted from selling furniture for dorm rooms to helping outfit childhood bedrooms for the semester. 

As eCommerce retailers prepare for back to school shopping trends in fall 2021, consumer electronics will still be high on the list. Other trends to watch for include an uptick in apparel spending and increased demand for omnichannel shopping experiences. Here’s what direct-to-consumer (DTC) eCommerce merchants need to know to prepare for the new normal in back to school shopping. 

Consumer Electronics Spending Dominates

While students may not return to online learning full time, many school districts will continue to use their distance education infrastructure. Shoppers will be back to make more consumer electronics purchases for students of all ages to accommodate hybrid learning plans and ongoing virtual education. Brands that want to scoop up this market should offer more flexible payment arrangements. Incorporating buy now, pay later (BNPL) solutions gives buyers the option to spread out these large purchases over time to work with their budget. 

This is a continuation of last years’ back to school shopping trends. Many parents purchased devices and equipment to make online learning more comfortable and efficient for their children. Electronic sales rose by 17% in 2020, even as much other spending remained flat. Retail spending on technology will hit $461 billion during 2021, up from an estimated $422 billion for 2020. Back-to-school shopping will likely continue to be a driving force for this increased spending. 

eCommerce retailers can meet this upcoming demand by targeting regional differences. States with a high number of hybrid students are more likely to drive demand for consumer electronics spending. Brands should build shopping experiences that reflect regional variations and localize stores with special pricing and promotions for different markets. 

Back to School Apparel Shopping Trends

For parents, the 2021-2022 school year is one of greater economic certainty. This year, as students return to school and unemployment rates continue to normalize, parents will return to searching and shopping for apparel. After a year of staying inside and wearing the same items, many families want a refresh. Consequently, retailers can expect an influx of apparel and accessory spending.  Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com, says in an article for Forbes, “The general trend is upward. Clothing and beauty are among the brightest sectors, since they took a big hit in 2020, and now a lot of people are getting back out there with a desire to refresh their looks.” 

For eCommerce back to school shopping in particular, analysts expect spending to skyrocket. MasterCard SpendingPulse predicts apparel spending to increase about 78% compared with the back-to-school season in 2020 and 11% from the 2019 season. Much of this spending will happen online. MasterCard predicts eCommerce sales to drop 7% year over year, but online spending will eclipse 2019’s back to school shopping season by 29%. 

 DTC retailers should anticipate starting promotion early. Many parents plan to begin their back to school shopping in July and August. Amazon Prime Day’s early debut in June is likely to increase demand for summer sales from other retailers. 

Online and Omnichannel Back to School Shopping Trends

Consumers will continue to buy online in 2021. Online shopping has become easier and better than ever. Many eCommerce retailers have streamlined and expanded their online experiences. Now customers can browse and purchase online and then pick up in store. Parents shopping for several children can use online shopping tools to make their selections and pick up at the curb the same day. 

Online back to school shopping trends are directly tied to school choices. According to survey data from Tinuiti, families returning to online school favor online shopping, “53% will do their back-to-school shopping exclusively online, and another 10% will use contactless curbside pickup. Just 11% of families planning on remote learning say they’ll shop both online and in stores — 58% lower than the survey average.” Brands should plan to adapt based on these variations, since families returning to school in-person full time prefer to shop in-person 47% of the time. 

Omnichannel shopping options give parents the flexibility they need for back to school shopping. Brands should continue to invest in infrastructure like eCommerce APIs that give shoppers a seamless online and brick and mortar shopping experience. Shoppers will likely use their mobile devices to make decisions about where to find the best deals and locate inventory. Syncing online and in-store systems to ensure inventory data is up-to-date will be crucial for retailers to keep ahead of the upcoming surge.  

Meeting the Back-to-School Shopping Demand

Consumers are settling into a new normal, and many of their priorities have shifted. According to McKinsey research, shoppers want a good value — not just a cheap price — sustainability, and the opportunity to stretch their dollar as far as possible by purchasing items that will last. Retailers should demonstrate value, provide a superior shopping experience and continue adapting as economic uncertainty continues to thaw. 

Revitalize Apparel Spending

Major clothing retailers have raised their forecasted earnings in anticipation of a robust back-to-school shopping season. Amazon Prime Day’s early arrival has spurred other retailers to begin promotions and sales early. Retailers should begin their back-to-school apparel strategies early to avoid missing the July and August shoppers. 

Deals and promotions are crucial for back-to-school apparel shoppers. More than half (51 percent) of [back-to-school] purchases are influenced by deals and promotions. Consumers look for promotions in their email inboxes and on their phones. Offering highly personalized promotions to consumers can help cut through the noise. Retailers can send SMS messages to customers within a certain geographic area and optimize their digital ad spend to target consumers searching for hot apparel items. 

Deliver the Best Omnichannel Shopping Experience

Back-to-school browsing is increasingly happening on mobile devices. Retailers should continue to invest in platforms that deliver a seamless shopping experience, no matter where a customer is browsing from. Optimizing search capabilities allows customers to find what they’re looking for quickly. Inventory management gives an accurate picture of what’s available in store so customers can either order for pickup or know where to go to complete their shopping. 

Returns should also be painless. Families on the go want to return items they’ve purchase online to a brick-and-mortar location easily. And, while they’re completing their return, offer last-minute discounts to pick up any items they may have missed. This turns a potential negative event (a return) into an opportunity to recapture revenue. 

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