- With the coronavirus pandemic causing uncertainty about the school year, the back-to-school shopping season will be a little different this year.
- The uncertainty could be especially difficult for stores that cater to college students’ needs, like Bed Bath & Beyond and Staples, according to Howard Meitiner, managing director at Carl Marks Advisors.
- “Why would parents be going out and buying dorm materials for college students if colleges are going to do all classes remotely?” Meitiner said.
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There’s still a lot of uncertainty out there about how colleges will operate come fall.
That uncertainty could have repercussions for the retailers that typically capitalize on college students needing to stock up on clothes, TVs, furniture, notebooks, and more, before heading back to school.
“I think it’s going to be tough for department stores. I think it’s going to be tough for stores selling apparel. I think it’s going to be difficult for companies like Staples and Bed Bath & Beyond,” Howard Meitiner, managing director at Carl Marks Advisors and the former CEO of Sephora USA, told Business Insider.
While some colleges are going fully remote for the fall, others are reopening with new social-distancing guidelines in place or moving up the semester to allow for a long winter break.
“Why would parents be going out and buying dorm materials for college students if colleges are going to do all classes remotely?” Meitiner said.
The back-to-school shopping season is typically big for certain types of retailers.
Mark Tritton, CEO of Bed Bath & Beyond, called it “one of our major seasonal promotional events and engagement with customers” during the retailer’s July 8 earnings call.
“We think it represents not only great sales opportunity, but it’s part of our life moments connective tissue with customers who go from a college experience with Bed Bath & Beyond to a moving experience with Bed Bath & Beyond to wedding registry, BABY and Beyond Beyond,” Tritton said, adding that the company was pleased with the interest around back-to-school items so far.
When asked by an analyst on the call, Tritton declined to share what proportion of sales back-to-school typically represents for Bed Bath & Beyond.
But given that the pandemic has upended schedules and finances for many, some may choose not to spend as much money on school essentials as they usually would. Some consumers may decide to reuse things they bought for this spring’s period of distance learning.
“I would have thought a lot of parents, given that people have been in lockdown, already purchased many of those items like laptops and headphones and electrical accessories and calculators and printers and tablets — I would have imagined those would have been necessities for the period that we’ve just come through,” Meitiner said.
Potential for growth
On the other hand, if parents and students haven’t yet bought things they might need for remote learning, there could be a big upside for stores stocking those items.
The National Retail Federation, the world’s largest retail trade association, is predicting that American consumers will spend a record $101.6 billion on back-to-school shopping this year, combining spending for K-12 and college students.
For 72% of those surveyed by NRF, the expectation that at least some learning will happen at home this fall is affecting what they expect they will need to buy. 36% of those surveyed said they expect to buy laptops to make distance learning a little easier, while some are buying furniture to recreate a classroom at home.
“Unlike when the shutdowns happened, families have a little bit more time to plan in anticipation of the start of the year. They may have also realized what worked or didn’t work for them in the spring,” Katherine Cullen, senior director of industry and consumer insights at NRF, told Business Insider.
Major retailers are already heavily promoting their back-to-school offerings. Several referenced the ongoing uncertainty in press releases announcing the beginning of the back-to-school season.
“Going back to school may look different across the country this year, but there’s no better place to help get kids, teachers and parents excited for the new school year than Walmart,” Scott Bayles, vice president for school and office supplies at Walmart, said in a press release.
At Target, college students can get $5 off an order of $20 or more.
“We want our guests to know that we’re here for them, no matter what,” Jill Sando, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer for style and owned brands at Target, said in a press release. “So we’re doing what Target does best — listening to their changing needs and designing incredible, affordable products and safe, simple, stress-free shopping experiences to help them send their kids to school or college — or settle in for at-home learning—on their terms.”