Back-To-School Season Is Confusing, But Sales May Break Records : Coronavirus Live Updates Preparing for both in-person and virtual learning has families budgeting for new school supplies like masks and bleach wipes as well as bigger purchases like laptops, speakers, desks and chairs.
NPR logo

A Confusing Back-To-School Season May Lead To Blockbuster Spending

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Confusing Back-To-School Season May Lead To Blockbuster Spending

A Confusing Back-To-School Season May Lead To Blockbuster Spending

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Back to school shopping is different this year. What's the point of a new backpack when the walk to school is a shuffle from the kitchen table to a desk in the bedroom? Though retailers are in a tailspin from the pandemic shutdowns, this year's uncertainty could bring them some good news. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Normally, Lidia Rodriguez would've spent hundreds of dollars to get her daughter ready for the first day of class - that's on her school uniform alone.

LIDIA RODRIGUEZ: And this year, she's just wearing a top for her Zoom meetings. So she's just wearing last year's - that barely fit. But I don't feel like investing another $300 on uniforms until she actually physically starts.

SELYUKH: Her daughter, like many other students around the country, started sixth grade without actually leaving their home in Tampa. So Rodriguez says her spending felt really minimum. But it's not like she could skip it altogether.

RODRIGUEZ: I did buy the school supplies, you know, like the notebooks and the folders and the pens and pencils, binders and all that.

SELYUKH: And here's a curious thing, the retail world is actually hoping for strong back-to-school spending. The retail trade group even predicts record highs, potentially topping $100 billion for school and college. That's because parents, like Rodriguez, might end up having to stock up for multiple scenarios in case students learn in-person, virtually or a bit of both, which also means they're buying more big-ticket items.

KATHERINE CULLEN: We're seeing more families purchasing electronics.

SELYUKH: Katherine Cullen is a senior director at the National Retail Federation. They've been tracking big changes to what's in demand - backpacks and new shoes, not so much. Instead, enter comfy home clothes and cleaning supplies and especially pricey electronics - this year's big sellers - laptops, tablets, speakers.

CULLEN: But they're also buying things that you might not expect as much - you know, desks, lamps, headphones - so a lot of new items that weren't traditionally on the school shopping list.

SELYUKH: And so retail marketers had to get creative to keep people shopping in a year of mass layoffs and furloughs. Amazon, Walmart, Old Navy embraced the oddity and disarray of pandemic schooling.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: This year, I get to do kindergarten with dad.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: However you go back, we've got your back.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Rapping) New school year, whatever that means...

SELYUKH: Macy's did a montage of kids at home learning to build a robot or tend to a garden. Even Ace Hardware got in on the pitch. Now that students have to bring masks and disinfectants to school, why not stock up for back to school at a home improvement store?

KISHA WASHINGTON: The biggest priority for me this year was setting up their home workspace.

SELYUKH: Kisha Washington did much of her spending back in the spring. As both she and her daughter adjusted to working from their home in Chicago, Washington set up her high school junior with a mounted computer monitor and a good sound system, later installing new task lighting.

WASHINGTON: Which morphed into her wanting task lighting plus tea-light-patio-hanging-from-the-ceiling-random-LED lighting. So she's also taking this opportunity to, you know, redecorate.

SELYUKH: Both Washington and Rodriguez would have to buy more supplies if or when their children actually return to the classroom. By one estimate, families like theirs still have about 60% of their back-to-school shopping left to do. The question is, when or how much of it will actually happen?

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.