With many students around the country going back to school remotely, the supply list is proving to be different this year. Sales of school supplies and related categories within the office supplies industry, from pencils to spiral notebooks, are down as U.S. consumers delay these purchases. Instead they are investing in other categories such as technology and books to set up school environments at home, according to The NPD Group research firm.
In the consumer technology sector, the surge in sales across many product categories that began in the spring has continued into the back-to-school season, as students gear up for distance learning. Notebook computer sales have been at near-historic levels, and in the seven weeks ending Aug. 8, dollar sales grew 51%. Sales have also grown for monitors (+79%), keyboards (+62%), mice (+43%), and docking stations (+12%). Virtual learning platforms have also created a need for communication devices, including USB cameras/webcams (+116%) and non-gaming PC headsets (+81%). Router sales also grew significantly during this period, with mesh routers in particular up 73%, to create a stronger home Wi-Fi connection and enable the home network to handle more traffic.
“Virtual learning has expanded the technology needs of back-to-school consumers in a way we have not seen before. Beyond PCs and peripherals, distance learners will need home Internet, connectivity, and dedicated spaces in the home for installation,” says Ben Arnold, NPD’s consumer technology industry analyst.
With more learning from home, sales of educational books also have grown in the seven weeks ending Aug. 8. Unit sales grew for activity books (+458%) and non-fiction subjects pertaining to school & education (+125%), language arts (+117%), and math (+20%), as well as home schooling books (+144%). On the other hand, but also in line with educational and testing shifts due to COVID-19, sales of adult reference and study aids — categories that typically spool up for college and adult education classes — declined by double digits.
“Educational books are going to be strong as families tackle the prospect of more learning from home. Workbooks, flashcards, and reference for preschool and early elementary will be especially hot, as parents prioritize that their kids stay on course with critical math and reading skills,” says Kristen McLean, NPD’s books industry analyst.
This year’s back-to-school shifts have altered the course for school supplies sales within the office supplies industry. Items including paper pads and crayons, among many others, saw a springtime sales lift as parents stocked up on products to keep their kids entertained at home. Heading into the peak weeks of the traditional back-to-school season, sales of these school supplies declined by 32% in the seven weeks ending Aug. 8, 2020, compared to the same weeks last year – accumulating to half of the revenue these items typically bring in during this period.
“The uncertainties around this back-to-school season are getting traditional school supplies sales off to a very late and slow start. The decline in sales as a result of consumers putting off purchases will create opportunities for purchase occasions in September and through holiday,” says Leen Nsouli, NPD’s office supplies industry analyst. “There will be a long tail of afterthought purchases as consumers acclimate to their new schooling environment, and atypical sales bumps as different geographies phase in physical classroom attendance at various times, blurring the beginning, ending and peak lines of this back-to-school season.”