Back-to-School Retail Fizzles Under Pandemic Pressure

Back-to-School Retail Fizzles Under Pandemic Pressure

Written by Aqilah ZailanSeptember 15, 2020

Back-to-School Retail Fizzles Under Pandemic Pressure

As one of the biggest shopping periods in fashion, back-to-school harboured hopes of an economic boost for many retailers.

Last year, back-to-school saw consumer spending surpass $80 billion, second only to the holiday season.

But uncertainties in the new schooling calendar and weak consumer spending will likely result in a more muted affair than retailers hoped for.

Variability in school policies also pose challenges in forecasting demand for this year’s back-to-school. Students are returning to campus in regions deemed safe to but many schools are resuming virtual learning due to Covid-19. 

The contrasting demand for in-class and virtual lessons resulted in a mixed bag of trends for this atypical season.

A Delayed Start for Back-to-School 

The back-to-school shopping event, which focuses on the 5 to 18-year-old market, usually begins in late July. But for this year, back-to-school, as with most retail events in the age of Coronavirus, kicked off later than usual.

Trade movement - Back-to-school retailers in the US
Trade movement for key retailers in the US (H&M, Urban Outfitters, Gap, Hollister & American Eagle). Source: Omnilytics Dashboard

Omnilytics data detected a spike in product sell-out only in the third week of August at key retailers such as H&M, Urban Outfitters, Gap and more. A more modest volume of new releases also indicates retailers are approaching this season with caution to repel the threats of an overstock crisis.

Landing pages communicating 'back-to-school'
Landing pages communicating ‘back-to-school’. Source: Omnilytics Dashboard

Marketing communication surrounding this season took a similar dip. Mentions of back-to-school consistently packed retailers’ websites last year but were more sporadic in 2020. This was likely due to doubts on school commencement with the unpredictable nature of the pandemic.

Despite delays and fewer communications in place, a surge in sell-outs proved that demand still exists for back-to-school necessities. However, not all trends from previous years will hold up in the coming months.

Opportunities in the New Normal

In this pandemic, parents will be prioritising digital devices and other products to aid virtual learning. Retailers are also promoting items to simulate a typical school environment, such as mock classrooms and backyard cafeterias to draw consumers in.

With parents eager to restore some normalcy to new routines, retailers could profit from back-to-school edits that include outfits for kids’ remote learning. 

Another new opportunity with increased digital consumption is blue light glasses, to reduce eye strains from staring at screens for extensive periods.

Along with protective eyewear, virtual learning will shift the focus to waist-up trends as kids continue to express themselves with fashion – despite the constraints. Omnilytics has already observed a surge in striking colours and statement patterns for tops among key retailers in the US.

Pattern analysis for tops
Pattern analysis for tops. Source: Omnilytics Dashboard

Sell-out contributions for graphic tops exceeded product contributions for H&M, Urban Outfitters and Gap as consumers gravitate towards bolder patterns.

Meanwhile, kids returning to campus will continue to propel face masks and antiviral fabrics. Cautious parents are demanding added protection for their kids and brands have responded with innovative antimicrobial materials

Back-to-School Trends to Look Out For

Brands are skewing back-to-school assortment towards casual and loungewear to accommodate consumers who will not be returning to physical classes.

Trade movement for the activewear category of key retailers in the US
Trade movement for the activewear category of key retailers in the US (H&M, Urban Outfitters, Gap, Hollister & American Eagle). Source: Omnilytics Dashboard

Activewear remains a strong contender for top trends, with growth in sell-out and new-in from the previous year.

Even with the limitations of lockdowns, kids are particularly active. For this reason, sneakers and other active garments are the bread and butter for back-to-school, both virtual and physical.

Back-to-school accessories trends
Trend performance of accessories subcategories. Source: Omnilytics Dashboard

Waist-up accessories have been trending in the US as retailers drill down on new opportunities in the pandemic. In line with the trend of statement tops, hair accessories and twillies are gaining traction in the market as consumers seek accent pieces to spruce up their ensemble for Zoom classes.

On the other hand, face masks continue to perform well as its use becomes mandatory in many countries and consumers amp up protection in public.

Jeans trends for back-to-school
Best-selling jeans from Urban Outfitters and H&M. Source: Omnilytics Dashboard

Jeans remain a back-to-school staple this season. New-ins for jeans increased by 68% YoY, met with a strong sell-out performance. 

That said, months of quarantine and the rise of comfort wear have shifted consumer preferences for denim. Best-selling styles this year consisted of loose cuts and relaxed silhouettes for greater comfort without compromising style.

Out with the Old, In with the New

With seasonal templates no longer relevant in today’s retail climate, greater visibility and frequent analysis of the market can help in aligning product launches closer to actual demand. 

Disruptions of key retail events may help fashion shed old habits of adhering to seasons and the rigid fashion calendar. 

Retailers should focus on providing compact but quality assortment to keep consumers coming back long after the back-to-school season.

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