This Year, Back-to-School Shoppers Are Eager to Head Back to Stores

47% of parents and students said they plan to do their back-to-school shopping in person, compared to 33% last year

(Olia Danilevich/Pexels)
  • 17% of back-to-school shoppers said they plan to make most of their purchases online this year, compared to 29% who said they primarily shopped online last year.

  • 48% said they shopped in-store in 2019, and 18% said they made their purchases online.

Last back-to-school shopping season, when the coronavirus was still raging across the country, many parents and students shifted their shopping online. Now, with vaccines widely available and in-person activities again becoming viable, the tide is turning back to these shoppers’ pre-pandemic preference for stores, according to a new Morning Consult/Adweek survey.

When asked about their plans for the upcoming school year, 47 percent of the 695 parents and students surveyed said they intend to shop mostly in stores for supplies, compared to 17 percent who said they plan to shop primarily online.

Both numbers are roughly even with the shares who said they shopped in person (48 percent) and online (18 percent) in 2019, the year prior to the pandemic.

Preference for In-Store Back-to-School Shopping Rebounds to 2019 Levels

Students and parents with children attending school this year were asked how they shopped for supplies in previous years, and how they plan to do so this year

Poll conducted July 23-26, 2021, among 695 students and parents, with a margin of error of +/-4%. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Last year, however, that wasn’t the case: 1 in 3 back-to-school shoppers said they purchased supplies in-store during the pandemic, about the same share who said they shopped online (29 percent).

Gen X parents and students are generally the most inclined to favor the brick-and-mortar experience, according to the July 23-26 survey, whose subsample of students and parents with children attending school this upcoming school year has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Gen X Back-to-School Shoppers Drive Preference for Brick-and-Mortar

Students and parents with children attending school this year were asked how they shopped for supplies in previous years, and how they plan to do so this year, sorted by generation

Poll conducted July 23-26, 2021, among 695 students and parents, with a margin of error of +/-4%. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

In 2019, when back-to-school shoppers said that in-store shopping was their preferred choice over online shopping or a combination of the two options, Gen X parents and students drove the trend, with 61 percent saying they mostly purchased in-person that year.

That was a larger share than that of the general population of parents and students (48 percent) and millennials (42 percent).

The generational divide disappeared last year, when Gen X back-to-school shoppers reported a 13 percentage-point increase in their tendency to shop online from the previous year, to 30 percent, bringing them roughly in line with millennials and the general population.

But this year, Gen X shoppers are reverting more to their brick-and-mortar habits: 53 percent said they’re planning to shop mostly in-store, up 18 points from the share who said they did so in 2020, for the biggest gain across generations.

There were no major divides based on political party affiliation or income bracket during the 2019 season, according to the Morning Consult/Adweek data, but some did start to emerge in 2020. 

Republicans Most Likely to Say They’ll Shop for School Supplies in Person This Year

Students and parents with children attending school this year were asked how they shopped for supplies in previous years, and how they plan to do so this year, sorted by political party

Poll conducted July 23-26, 2021, among 695 students and parents, with a margin of error of +/-4%. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

When looking back at the pandemic back-to-school season, 47 percent of Republican parents and students said they did their shopping primarily in stores, down slightly from the 56 percent who said the same when thinking about the year before the pandemic.

That drop-off was more significant among Democrats, one-quarter of whom said they shopped in-person in 2020, compared to 43 percent who said they did the same in 2019.

The partisan divide is likely to remain, with Republicans most likely to shop in-person this year, and Democrats more evenly split across the three options.

High-Income Shoppers Are Spending Less Online This Year Than Last

Students and parents with children attending school this year were asked how they shopped for supplies in previous years, and how they plan to do so this year, sorted by income

Poll conducted July 23-26, 2021, among 695 students and parents, with a margin of error of +/-4%. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Shoppers who earn more than $100,000 per year reported a fairly large increase in online shopping from 2019 to 2020, up 19 points during that time, creating a slight divide among income brackets, as well.

But high-earners are planning to shift their spending back to stores this year: 45 percent said they’ll mostly buy in-person for the upcoming school year, and 19 percent said they plan to shop online. The share of online shoppers is down from 41 percent last year, which could be cause for concern for retailers who are still betting on online sales. 

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