The Supply Side: Back-to-school brings new challenges for retailers, parents

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 532 views 

The back-to-school shopping season is underway, but families are still undecided or unsure whether their kids will return to classrooms this year or continue with virtual education as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers.

The National Retail Federation estimates consumers will spend, on average, $789.49 per family, $92.79 more than the average spend in 2019. Total spending is expected to reach $33.9 billion, up from $26.2 billion reported last year. That would break the record of $30.3 billion set in 2012.

Another survey by Deloitte was less optimistic, estimating a total spend of $28.1 billion for parents of kids K-12. Both studies found much uncertainty from respondents. Regardless of which survey is most accurate, analysts said back-to-school is still a big season for retailers.

“By any measure, this is an unprecedented year with great uncertainty, including how students will get their education this fall, whether they are in kindergarten or college,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay.

A survey completed by WalletHub found seven in 10 parents said COVID-19 had changed their attitude toward back-to-school shopping. It has impacted where they shop, what they buy and how much they plan to spend.

“New supplies simply may not be necessary if school starts remotely, and many families are struggling financially right now,” said Jill Gonzalez,

WalletHub analyst. “Despite how novel this situation is, it’s still important to attempt to maintain some semblance of normalcy for the kids’ sake. Back-to-school shopping is an important ritual, and parents should send other signals about the coming shift from summer fun to schoolwork if they don’t plan to do any shopping.”

Walmart is a major back-to-school shopping destination, and stores have been setting seasonal displays in the past couple of weeks. That will continue through early August, according to Leigh Stidham, corporate spokeswoman.

It’s too early to know how well sales are going, but analysts expect Walmart to give an update during its mid-August earnings call. The retail giant said while there are some categories in short supply in Supercenters when it comes to school supplies, “we’ve been able to be nimble and respond when the need arises, all with a commitment to ensuring we were stocked and available for our customers,” Stidham said.

Given the uncertainty, Stidham said Walmart buyers work to ensure they covered all the bases for teachers and parents who decide to keep their children at home.

As a growing number of parents prepare for virtual learning, Walmart partnered with top brands like ABC Mouse, PBS Kids, Disney, Crayola and Sylvan Learning to offer workbooks and online content to help kids continue their home education.

“We understand this year brought unique challenges for many families, and we’re committed to making back-to-school shopping easy, convenient and affordable,” said Scott Bayles, vice president of school and office supplies at Walmart.

The workbooks include a phonics study by ABC Mouse, and PBS Kids offers a dinosaur train science workbook. Bayles said there are also virtual workbooks that can be accessed online at

There also are bonus experiences, lessons and activities for kids on the website. Parents can find science experiments, reading and writing projects, math computation, problem-solving, and storytelling activities.

With diversity and racial equity issues being discussed nationwide, Bayles said Walmart teamed up with Crayola to release a new line of crayons designed to mirror and promote diversity representation. The 32-pack of crayons includes 24 specialty colors formulated to represent global skin tones. There are four eye and four hair colors in the collection, and Walmart has an exclusive on the new Crayola product.

Walmart also set up a designated teacher section in stores and online. The special section gives teachers and parents a one-stop place to find everything they need for their classrooms, including decor and supply staples like low-odor erasable markers and purple washable glue sticks. The teacher aisle is outfitted with hand sanitizer, hand wipes, masks and other items to fend off COVID-19 infections.

Bayles said Walmart has worked to offer more sustainable back-to-school supplies this year. Chasity Prince, senior buyer for stationary at Walmart, said the retail giant is strengthening its sustainable sourcing requirements for products that contain paper and pulp (excluding wood pencils) sold in Walmart stationery departments, just in time for back-to-school shopping.

Prince said Walmart requires the products be made from either recycled material, virgin fiber certified to standards of the Forest Stewardship Council, Sustainable Forestry Initiative or Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification, or a mix of recycled and certified natural fiber.

She said Walmart requires the standards of private and national suppliers of paper so consumers can expect the same commitment to sustainability regardless of brands. Prince said the move is part of Walmart’s ongoing work with global private brand suppliers and larger goals related to deforestation. The change will impact products like loose-leaf notebook paper, spiral notebooks and composition books.

Environmental group World Wildlife Fund has applauded Walmart for the effort to strengthen its stationary paper sourcing requirements.

Editor’s note: The Supply Side section of Talk Business & Politics focuses on the companies, organizations, issues and individuals engaged in providing products and services to retailers. The Supply Side is managed by Talk Business & Politics and sponsored by Propak Logistics.