For both students and their parents, the 2020-2021 school year was like none other.

• And, while a return to in-person learning seems likely, the school year to come may be just as unpredictable.

• As we inch closer to the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, retailers are hard at work figuring out how to deliver value to (and generate business from) parents and students alike.

Back-to-School means back to stores — but not necessarily back to normal

With vaccination numbers going up, and COVID-related restrictions being relaxed across the country, most people are looking forward to doing their back-to-school shopping in-store.

  • 59% of parents say they’ll shop for clothing in-store
  • 65% say they’ll be buying academic supplies at brick-and-mortar locations
  • 56% say they’ll be heading into their local stores to purchase electronic equipment

Overall, most consumers will be doing at least some in-person shopping for their back-to-school needs.

Of course, there are some people who will be doing their back-to-school shopping exclusively online. That said, COVID-related services (e.g., BOPIS options, virtual showrooms) are still relevant as we enter the 2021 school year.

Another thing:

  • Those who are heading back to physical stores aren’t exactly looking to go “back to normal.”
  • They’re not reverting to their 2019, pre-pandemic back-to-school shopping habits.
  • A lot has changed over the last two years — including the people doing the shopping.

For retailers, it would be a mistake to take a “business as usual” approach to the upcoming back-to-school season. In our report, we look at the key things retailers can do to accommodate the needs of both parents and students, whether they’re shopping online or in-store.

Going all-out to give kids the full school experience

There’s more to the school experience than sitting in a classroom.

There are sports, band, drama club, and other extracurricular groups to join.

There are field trips, field days, and special school holidays.

There are moving up ceremonies, graduations — and a ton of milestones in between.

For parents, it was heartbreaking to see their kiddos miss out on a year’s worth of these experiences. In fact, a full 67% of parents say their child missed out on an important milestone due to the shutdown.

Looking ahead, parents and children alike are looking forward to resuming in-person education: 57% of parents say their children are more excited about school this year than last year, and 60% of parents are excited for their children to experience school milestones this coming year.

These same parents also say they’re willing to treat their children to give them a special start to their school year. Chances are, this sentiment will prevail throughout the year as students reacclimate to in-person learning and the overall in-school experience.

Simply put:

Parents are looking to go all-out to celebrate the many experiences the upcoming school year will bring their children.

And they’re willing to open their wallets to make it happen.

For retailers, the reopening of schools will provide many ongoing sales opportunities throughout the school year — and the overarching opportunity to generate massive loyalty among the parents and students being served.

Seeking fair and honest value from retailers

Though parents are willing to spend additional money on their children this school year, they aren’t being frivolous in their spending.

Rather, parents are being more cautious in how they spend their money for the time being.

Overall, cost and value are the top priorities for consumers during this back-to-school season. Parents are well aware of rising prices and have also become warier in buying things they don’t necessarily need. When it comes to educational supplies, electronics, and other school-related products, buyers will be looking for those that get the job done for the most affordable price.

Parents are also more apt to seek out any deals or savings they can to mitigate rising prices:

  • 27% will look for more coupons and discounts
  • 23% plan to shop around at different stores for the best price
  • 22% will save by purchasing more store brand products

That said, offering discounts and lower prices may help spur one-off sales or get hesitant customers to make a purchase.


It will take more than a deal to create ongoing loyalty from the customer.

Again, it will be important for retailers to see beyond the immediate reopening of schools to understand how they can continue delivering value to parents and students throughout the 2021–2022 school year.

More than just offering relevant products at different times of the year, retailers can deliver helpful content to customers over time, as well.

A few examples:

  • Gift guides for students of different ages, and for different milestones
  • Parental guides to keep their children safe, healthy, and active throughout the year
  • Age-appropriate recipes and activity guides for families to work through together

Parents want to go the extra mile for their kids this coming school year, and they’ll almost certainly need some help along the way.

Whether actively selling to parents and students or simply offering guidance as they navigate the year to come, retailers will have a ton of opportunities to deliver value to their customers throughout the school season.

Saved by the bell: why back-to-school means back to business for retailers

If one thing’s for sure, it’s that the 2021 back-to-school season will not look the same as it did in 2020.

For one, brick-and-mortar storefronts will be more fully open for business this season. This, alone, paints a stark contrast between the retail landscapes of 2020 and 2021, altogether.

More importantly, though, the modern retail consumer’s needs and expectations have evolved over the last two years. As children and young adults head into the classroom, both students and parents will be looking to get more out of their back-to-school shopping experience than perhaps ever before.

For a closer look at what retailers can do to better serve parents and students in the coming year, check out our 2021 Back-to-School Outlook.