Wed | Sep 30, 2020

COVID-19 reshapes and reduces back-to-school spending

Published:Tuesday | August 4, 2020 | 4:29 PM
Back-to-school supplies await shoppers at a store on Saturday, July 11, 2020, in Marlborough, Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — For Michelle Lynn England, back-to-school shopping always meant heading to Target and the local mall with her two girls and dropping about $500 on each of them for trendy outfits.

Not this year.

The Charlotte, North Carolina, woman cut her spending on clothing in half for her 10-year-old and 14-year-old and instead spent more on masks and other supplies as a surge in coronavirus cases forced her school district to extend online learning through the fall.

“The kids always looked forward to getting something new,” said England, who spent $500 in total this time around. “It didn’t make any sense to buy any extra clothes that won’t be worn.”

As the pandemic drags into the new school year, it is wreaking havoc on reopening plans and the back-to-school shopping season, the second most important period for retailers behind the holidays.

Parents are buying less dressy clothing and more basics for their kids, while stepping up purchases of masks and other protective equipment as well as electronics. They’re also holding back on spending amid uncertainty over what the school year will look like. The back-to-school season typically kicks off in mid-July and peaks in mid-August. This year, experts predict the peak will hit in late August and spill into most of September.

“We are definitely seeing a delay,” said Jill Renslow, senior vice president of the Bloomington, Minnesota-based Mall of America, which reopened in mid-June with social-distancing protocols. “People just don’t know what they need.”

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, is pinning its hopes on parents who splurge on pricey items such as computers and other electronics to help their kids learn from home.

The trade group predicts that parents of elementary and high school students will spend a total of $33.9 billion this year. That’s up from $26.2 billion last year and would break the record of $30.3 billion set in 2012.

College students and their families are expected to spend a total of $67.7 billion, up from $54.5 billion last year and potentially breaking the record of $55.3 billion set in 2018, according to the trade group.

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