Report: The Business of Back-to-School Shopping in 2020

Back-to-school 2020 will be unlike any year the world has ever experienced. The uncertainty has students, parents and retailers antsy and concerned. Unpredictable incomes have families tightening their purse strings. Parents are debating whether or not to send their children back, even if the schools reopen. Data suggests most parents will wait until the end of Summer before tackling most back-to-school shopping in 2020, in the hopes that they may have more answers by then.

The Business of Back-to-School Shopping in 2020

Merchants are scrambling to come up with a flexible strategy that will ensure maximum profitability. To do that, they have to get into the minds of parents and students and evaluate how the pandemic is impacting their buying behaviour.

Rakuten surveyed parents about the upcoming school year and found:

  • Over 50 percent of grade school and high school shoppers were still unclear as to how school would be conducted in the Fall.
  • 34 percent of college shoppers are not experiencing any changes to the start of their school year.
  • 32 percent of college shoppers will be attending online classes rather than in-person classes.
  • 78 percent of parents have experienced some sort of financial hardship due to COVID-19.

The supplies students need may depend on whether or not they’re going to school or learning at home. For example, if they go back on school premises, masks, gloves and hand sanitizer may be required in addition to traditional supplies.

Merchants can focus on items that are required no matter where the student learns, but they’ll miss the opportunities discovered by stores who are actively trying to work the situation in their favour.

If they learn from home, students will need less paper products. They won’t need as much new clothing, and what they do buy doesn’t have to be as fancy. Staples that will move seamlessly between home & school will suit practical parents, such as jeans.

You might be surprised at the profitable ideas that this ‘new normal’ inspires, however, if you apply some creative thinking to the situation.

“This is an unusually challenging time to recommend the purchase of a brand new computer,” writes Jeremy Horwitz for Venture Beat. “I personally see greater added value in a new monitor than a new computer.”

2020 Back-to-School Shopping Behaviour of Canadians

By the time we receive data pertaining to the 2020 school year, it will be too late to utilize it. Last year’s data is of little use under the circumstances. That said, we can still learn a lot from parent polls as they try to navigate the situation, which is our intent with this report.

Many Canadians seem to think it is unsafe to fully reopen, according to an Ipsos poll.

  • 53 percent say the idea of sending children back to school during this pandemic makes them feel uncomfortable
  • 22 percent are comfortable lifting the lockdown for children and sending them back to school.
  • 31 percent of participants from Quebec and 35 percent of Albertans feel comfortable sending children back to school, compared to only 17 percent across all other regions in Canada.
  • Men (25%) are more likely than women (20%) to say they’re comfortable allowing children to go back to school during the pandemic.

Online Shopping will Rule School Spending

Canadians were already big on online shopping and the pandemic has brought even the most reluctant shoppers to the internet. A Bank of Canada Consumer Expectations survey found 38.8 percent of Canadians shop online more than they did pre-pandemic.

Canadian Shopping Habits Pandemic

Eighty-five to eighty-seven percent of shoppers will do some back-to-school shopping online, predicts Rakuten Advertising.

Online Back-to-School Shopping for Grade/High School Students

  • 85 percent of shoppers will do at least some back-to-school shopping online
  • 28 percent will do most of their back-to-school shopping online, some in-store
  • 20 percent will buy half online, half in-store
  • 19 percent will shop most in-store, some online
  • 18 percent all online
  • 15 percent all in-store

Back-to-School Shopping for College or University Students

  • 87 percent of college/university shoppers will do at least some back-to-school shopping online
  • 27 percent will do most online but some in-store
  • 25 percent will purchase half online and half in-store
  • 18 percent will shop most in-store, some online
  • 17 percent all online
  • 13 percent all in-store

The Retail Council of Canada and Leger studied the regional differences among back-to-school shoppers in Canada. Quebec shoppers were less likely to purchase school supplies, health-related products, books, movies, and sporting goods online last year, compared to shoppers in the rest of Canada. Shoppers in Ontario are more likely to purchase school supplies online this year.

2020 Back to School Online Shopping

What Are Back-to-School Shoppers Buying?

Back-to-School Shopping for Grade/High School Students

  • Sixty-two percent of shoppers will spend over $500 on back-to-school college supplies this Fall
  • Thirty-eight percent will spend less than $500
  • Thirty-eight percent will spend $500-$1000
  • Seventeen percent will spend $1000-$2000
  • Seven percent will blow over $2000

They’ll spend that money on:

  • Cleanliness (tissues, hand sanitizers & face masks) 28%
  • Traditional (backpacks, notebooks, glue, etc.) 23%
  • Tech 20%
  • Clothing 20%
  • Prepackaged prepared food 6%
  • Sports 3%

Back-to-School Shopping for College or University Students

  • Fifty-two percent of college/university students will spend less than $500 on back-to-school supplies.
  • Thirty-one percent will spend $500-$1000
  • Thirteen percent will spend $1000-$2000
  • Five percent will blow over $2000

That money will go towards:

  • Cleanliness 26%
  • Tech 22%
  • Traditional 13%
  • Clothing 13%
  • Household items 9%
  • Cell phone 5%
  • Prepackaged Prepared food 4%
  • Sports 3%
  • Vehicle 2%
  • TV, gaming & audio 1%

Winning Tips

Online sales are critical! Bring your business online and add ecommerce functionality. It’s relatively easy and inexpensive to do these days and it’s where Canadian consumers want to find you.

Price is going to matter more than it did last Fall, as consumers deal with layoffs and financial uncertainty.

Be ready to pivot as more information becomes available. For example, you can have digital ads ready for multiple scenarios so you can quickly jump on situational changes.

Plan now for each scenario. What will you do if most Canadian schools open on time or later? What is your plan for each province as they reopen at different times and in different ways?

School supplies usually disappear in October. In 2020, it would be wise to keep them in inventory for longer. It will give you the opportunity to offset a soft start to the short season. Additionally, it may become difficult for parents to buy what they need later in the school year, as other merchants move into the holiday season as usual. You could gain sales from the opportunities they inadvertently passed on.

That doesn’t mean you should take the spotlight off the holiday season early in the fourth quarter. Rakuten found over 50 percent of all back-to-school shoppers are also browsing for holiday gifts. Thirty-five percent of shoppers are buying school supplies and holiday gifts at the same time. I predict parents will be holiday shopping even earlier this year, as worries about finances, product availability and shipping delays motivate them to get it done.

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Be aware of the current concerns of Canadian parents, and anticipate their needs throughout the school year as the situation changes. You can keep an eye on Provincial websites for news and updates on school reopenings, such as Ontario’s Approach to Reopening Schools for the 2020-2021 School Year.

Canadian Parents COVID-19

We’ll continue to update this post as more info becomes available. Subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on Twitter to be notified of updates.

??? How will the pandemic change your back-to-school retail strategy?

✔ You may also be interested in reading:
How to Bring Your Canadian Small Business Online
How Real Retailers Are Using Digital Tech to Beat the Pandemic


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Digital Business & Marketing Manager at Online Business Canada | Website | + posts

Melody McKinnon's formal education is in business management, which she enhanced with more than 60 certifications revolving around business, marketing, health, general sciences and writing. In over 20 years of working online, she has owned or managed both educational and eCommerce websites.

Melody has worked with many businesses & brands in a multitude of capacities. She can often be found on, and, as well as other quality digital publications. Her content has earned reference links from highly-respected websites, magazines and university textbooks.

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It’s sure a fine kettle of fish but we’re all learning from it! Thanks for sharing this info.