No one knows what “back-to-school shopping” means this year

Jasmine Nakasoni has put aside about $40 to $50 every month since last August for her daughter’s back-to-school shopping expenses. As members of the debt-free community, she and her wife don’t rely on credit cards, so instead, they budget out for nearly every occasion or event they expect to spend on. This year, the initial plan was to spend $500 on school supplies and new clothes for their 14-year-old, Hayley.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, threw their budget off-kilter, as Nakasoni realized that her daughter would need a desk, headphones, and organizational supplies for at-home learning, instead of the notebooks, pens, and dancewear she originally planned for.

The family attempted to maintain a sense of normalcy by taking Hayley on a socially distanced shopping spree and presenting her with an envelope of cash to spend, as they do every year.

“A lot of things have changed,” Nakasoni told me. “Hayley has to start freshman year and dance team virtually, so we just wanted to keep one thing as close to normal as possible.”

The bustling atmosphere of back-to-school shopping — a tradition shared by many families across the country — has been replaced with reminders to socially distance, to wear masks, and to constantly sanitize surface areas. And in a particularly cash-strapped economy, parents are more cautious with their purchases, while many school districts are in the midst of finalizing teaching plans, possibly delaying school supply and books lists. Yet retailers are financially banking on families showing up: Back-to-school season is the second-biggest retail event, after the winter holidays. The National Retail Federation predicted that in 2020, families with elementary to high school-age kids will spend on average $789.49 this season, compared to a record average of $696.70 in 2019.

These are just estimates: Families are preparing for many different scenarios, which could impact their spending habits. While there is less demand for traditional school supplies, parents and students are increasingly interested in things like computer monitors, headphones, desks, office chairs, and lamps.

However, the impulse to physically embark on a shopping spree still exists, in spite of the possible health risks involved. On Instagram’s #BackToSchoolShopping tag (which is inundated with advertisements), parents are still eagerly posting photos of their masked kids, posing in stores and carrying their latest purchases. Similarly, on YouTube, high school-age, college, and family vloggers are posting “shop with us” videos and back-to-school hauls, featuring products from popular retailers like Walmart, Target, and Amazon. The reality, though, is far from that happy-go-lucky vision: Stores and shoppers don’t know how a pandemic back-to-school season will unfold.

“We’ve undergone big changes but still don’t know what the next two months are going to hold,” the vice president of marketing for the uniform company French Toast told the Washington Post. Students’ needs are changing, and families are increasingly focused on the need for personal protective equipment (if their child is returning to school) or technology (if they’re pursuing distance learning).

One mother of a Minnesota first-grader wrote to me on Facebook saying that she’s “stressed to the gills with distance learning,” and has held off on making purchases until the family has attended a socially distanced “open house” to receive supply lists. “Until now, it’s been the school making sure everyone has [laptop] devices,” she added. In coronavirus hot spots, some parents have entirely shifted to ordering items online, while others — like Nakasoni’s family, who live in Richmond, Virginia — are able to frequent shopping centers and big-box retailers. In recent years, stores like Target and Walmart have attempted to digitize back-to-school shopping, offering one-click shopping options and partnering with certain schools and teachers to make the experience more convenient.


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