As we reFOCUS for 2020, big milestones loom on the horizon. Black Friday is coming, but before that the traditional back to school (BTS) shopping season is fast approaching. Of course, traditional is a term to be used loosely as COVID-19 is sure to shake up our perspective just like it has with every major event in 2020. Back to school shopping serves as a late summer holiday for manufacturers with everything from clothes, furniture, and electronics flying off the shelves. Big box retailers like Walmart and Target see the biggest influx of customers, but even furniture stores get a boost as college grads look to furnish new apartments or dorms. This kind of shopping spree could be just the shot in the arm that the U.S. economy needs right now, but how will the pandemic change it?

Schools will reopen in the fall, but we still don’t know what “going to school” will look like. Will students be physically present in class, remotely learning, or some combination thereof? It seems that every county across America is trying to come up with its own solution, but it is obvious that the school year will be anything but traditional. Students will still need school supplies, but pencils, backpacks, and new shoes will take a back seat to computers and electronic peripherals (and personal hygiene and sanitary products). According to NRF, parents with children in K-12 plan to spend $789.49 this year which is up almost $100 over last year. This uptick is likely due to the uncertainty over back to school plans and the belief that electronics will be the most important component to the upcoming year. Deloitte is reporting that this year will see a 28% increase in spending on electronics within the K-12 demographic. Laptops have been used to enhance learning in years past, but with the possibility of remote education they are now the center of attention. Schools around the country are trying to sort out how they will distribute laptops to students like they did earlier this year, but some parents will be looking to buy their own equipment. Laptop sales don’t even factor into accessories like headphone, ergonomic keyboards, and blue light screen protectors. College students by contrast have always spent more on electronics, but NRF projects their spending to rise from $976.78 to $1,059.20. These students will face many of the same challenges that employees who transitioned to remote work earlier this year did. Some will have to change their living arrangements and others will have to furnish workspaces to function like a classroom.

Even if we narrow down what consumers will buy in this modified back to school shopping, there is still the mystery of where they will be purchasing these products. CSG’s Consumer Spending Report showed renewed interest in physical retail spending when stores were initially reopening, but since the number of positive COVID-19 cases has erupted that interest has turned to trepidation. There will still be shoppers who venture into their local stores, but others will be looking to digital outlets or other alternatives like curbside pick-up and cashier less checkouts. Manufacturers should seize this opportunity to partner with retailers who can place their products in front of consumers through these diverse formats. CSG has been monitoring the situation since March and tracks both temporary and permanent closures as well as the affects COVID-19 has had on the retail industry. Students still need to be prepared for the upcoming school year, but those needs are changing as plans for reopening become solidified.