Back-to-School 2023: More Browsing, Spending, and Instore Visits

Grace Williams

In the four back-to-school (BTS) shopping seasons spanning 2020-2023, certain factors have changed, but one key motivator has remained the same. Whatever life threw at them, consumers displayed unwavering commitment to getting their kids properly (and sometimes safely) decked out and accessorized in time for the first bell.

Whether they faced an unprecedented global pandemic and subsequent supply-chain snags or the more familiar bugaboo of inflation, consumers sought to create a sense of normalcy (read: how things flowed during the pre-pandemic days) while proceeding with caution.

A Look Back

In 2020, safety and uninterrupted learning were strong motivators. The school year that began some six months after the pandemic became an undeniable reality saw both tension and uncertainty ratcheted up. Families that sent their children back to class decked them out with safety-related accessories like KN95 masks and sanitizer. Remote and hybrid learning were also part of the equation that year and many parents spent big to upgrade their students’ electronics and technology items.

When 2021 saw the en masse return to the classroom, two seemingly paradoxical trends emerged: items that would increase safety and help people avoid illness as they spent more time indoors and gear that would make outside time tolerable, especially during inclement weather.

BTS 2022 saw consumer demand increase for items that better supported health for both people and the planet. Thirty-six percent of parents spent on mental-health-related items, including apps and therapy sessions, according to consultancy firm Deloitte. The push toward more sustainable consumption saw 50% purchasing environmentally friendly products and 29% showing interest in buying used or refurbished items.

Wary in 2023

After 18-plus months of record-setting inflation and with pandemic-related safety taking a backseat, consumers began 2023 BTS shopping as early as June. This time around, budgeting and holding out for that ever-elusive “best bargain” became more important, as many shoppers had less disposable income.

Financial woes or even the potential for them had consumers looking at their finances more closely. Thirty-four percent of survey respondents planned to postpone non-essential purchases this year, an almost ten-percent increase from last year’s thirty-one percent.

There were a few key culprits bolstering this penny pinching. According to Deloitte’s BTS report, 31% said prolonged inflation worsened their family’s finances, and 50% of survey respondents expect a weak economy over the next six months. Three in ten respondents reported their family was in a worse financial situation compared to the previous year. And according to a joint poll conducted by CNET and You.Gov, 25 percent of parents planned to budget more than in previous years. Rising consumer costs or inflation impacted 85% of parents, according to the poll.

Still Ready to Spend

In its annual BTS survey, the National Retail Federation (NRF) reported overall spending estimates for kindergarten through 12th-grade students reached $41.5 billion, up from $36.9 billion in 2022. Back-to-campus shoppers are expected to spend a total of $94 billion on their college students, an increase of $20 billion from 2022.

For elementary through high-school-aged students, shoppers were looking to spend a reported $890.70 on average, representing $25 more over last year’s average of $864.35, still a new high. Average spending for college-aged students was expected to reach $1,366.95 per person, up from $1,199.43 last year and handily beating the 2021 record of $1200.32. Primary reasons for the rise according to the NRF included the need to upgrade big-ticket items like electronics.

The Where and the How of It

With stores fully open, primed, and ready to serve BTS shopping needs across both physical and digital storefronts, shopping destinations included a blend of department stores,  super stores, and discounters. In the “bricks vs. clicks” debate, Deloitte reported more shoppers preferred to at least browse in-store this year with 74% of consumers reporting their overall shopping would take place in-store compared to 56% who preferred online shopping.

The consumer is “prioritizing in-store purchases, but when they do shop online, they expect low-purchase minimums for free shipping and returns,” wrote Deloitte. While the online formats remain robust, there is still plenty of motivation for the customer to partake of the in-store experience. Chalk it up to still pent-up demand for in-person experiences, including the ability to see, touch, and try out (and for clothes, try on), as well as the instant gratification of walking out immediately with the desired items.

Caution was still a watchword, though the expression was different. While in the recent past, safety was paramount, this year consumers are looking for financial protection, along with convenience and affordability. More than half of shoppers – 55% – researched return policies before making a purchase, according to Deloitte. A poll conducted by CNET and YouGov reported 86% of parents planned to utilize savings strategies such as tax-free weekends or online sales for bargains.

Parents identifying as members of Gen X (born 1965-1980) reported looking to social media for their BTS shopping. Key attractions were promotions, capturing 62% of parents, followed by coupons (49%), and reviews and recommendations (46%), according to Deloitte.

Overall Priorities Have Changed

With inflation and financial worries top of mind, one popular trend from 2022, the focus on sustainability, moved down the list. Only 35% of consumers reported sustainability as a 2023 priority, compared to 50% in 2022. While Deloitte reported that  [t]he focus is on replenishing the necessities, such as school supplies, while holding off on non-essential purchases,” nearly six in ten parents said they were willing to splurge “for the right reasons, like treating their child, self-expression, or better quality.”

Whether they shopped in-person, online, or used a combination this year, parents were more cost-conscious while still trying to ensure they got everything for their students. Though the need for specific items has changed, parents remain dedicated to helping set their kids up for success.