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Computers, desks, lockers: Back-to-school shopping is different this year

Parents are planning, and spending, “for all possible scenarios,” says one retail industry expert.

Chase and Hanna Teeson put up a bulletin board in what used to be their playroom but has now been turned into a study space.
Chase and Hanna Teeson put up a bulletin board in what used to be their playroom but has now been turned into a study space.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

This past winter, Staples began planning for the 2020 school year much as it always has: by ordering pallets of backpacks, notebooks, and pencils, and scheduling block parties in its parking lots. The slogan the company had planned for the academic year was both upbeat and reassuring: “Back to Awesome.”

But there will be no back to awesome this year. As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into the start of a new school calendar, parents are struggling to both educate their children and keep them safe. And Staples has been scrambling in its effort to serve them.

Much like today’s parents, the Framingham-based office supply store has had to reset expectations. That means it’s stocking child-sized desks and blue-light-blocker glasses, and scrapping its “awesome” slogan for one that better reflects the realities of the year ahead: “School Goes On.”

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“We’re cognizant that it’s a difficult and emotional time,” said Amy Lang, Staples senior vice president for strategy and insights, who added that the company changed the slogan to ensure it didn’t sound tone deaf to the stresses facing parents. “It’s not going to be the year we thought it’s going to be.”

Back-to-school season is typically upbeat for both parents and retailers. (Staples famously dubbed it its “most wonderful time of the year.”) Adults get their “must-have” lists from teachers, and then stock up on school clothes, sneakers, and backpacks. Retailers blanket media outlets with ads for back-to-school necessities. Kids shake off the annual arrival of autumnal ennui with the unique excitement that accompanies a new lunchbox or outfit.

But as 2020 will be a school year like no other, so will the shopping season.

“I have to buy a computer for my kindergartner. I would never have done that in pre-2020 times,” said Lauren Beitelspacher, a marketing professor at Babson College who studies retail consumption. “I don’t think parents are going to care as much about clothes and backpacks. It’s going to be about safety and masks, and ways to make at-home learning more palatable.”

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Retail industry experts say parents are planning to spend their cash on back-to-school basics, in case in-person classes resume, and on outfitting their basements, kitchens, and playrooms with resources to handle at-home schooling — if they can afford it. Several retail surveys released in the past few weeks have reported that despite an overall economic slowdown, parents on average expect to spend hundreds of dollars more this year on their back-to-school shopping, thanks in part to the purchase of additional electronics and at-home furnishings.

“Back-to-school is always expensive, and there’s a lot that goes into that,” said Stephanie Cegielski of the International Council of Shopping Centers, which predicts that parents will spend an average of $1,053 this year, a $200 increase from 2019. “If they have hybrid learning, they will need the in-classroom supplies as well as the technology at home. That is an extra burden that could be a bit difficult for some families this year.”

So far, consumers are holding off on making all their purchases, but analysts expect them to keep buying through the fall.

Though some schools have already begun classes down South, most “consumers are still dealing with a fair amount of uncertainty about the upcoming school year,” Katherine Cullen, the National Retail Federation’s senior director for consumer and industry insights, said. With so much unknown, she added, parents are forced to plan — and spend — “for all possible scenarios.”

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That could mean buying desks, laptops, and whiteboards for elementary and high school kids, or updating a college student’s bedroom for at-home coursework. All told, the National Retail Federation predicts that total spending for K-12 and college combined will reach $101.6 billion — exceeding last year’s $80.7 billion and topping the $100 billion mark for the first time.

“Unlike the spring where it sort of happened really quickly, parents have more time and might also know what worked for them and what didn’t in terms of a home learning environment,” Cullen said. “We know that their kids might need their own headphones or a desk for a dedicated space.”

That’s what Jenna Teeson of Dover has planned for her two children, ages 10 and 12. Her older son attends private school and will be attending in-person four days a week, while her daughter, who attends public school, will be fully remote. The transition to at-home learning in the spring was tough on everyone, Teeson said, and she hired a tutor to help her daughter keep up with her coursework.

Now, as she preps for the school year ahead, Teeson’s converting the playroom off her kitchen into a study space. She says her daughter was really upset about starting school remotely, but the home project has restored a bit of back-to-school excitement.

“I gave them a budget of $400 for paint and supplies and a new cheap rug on Wayfair,” she said. “Part of this for me is creating a functional space where they can be while I’m in my office upstairs. But it’s also making a space they’re excited to be in.”

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Earlier this month, Ben Ostrander learned his two elementary school-age children would attend classes remotely in their Framingham school district this fall. So while “the last place I wanted to go this time of year is IKEA,” he said, due to concerns about COVID-19, he decided the kids needed desks and chairs of their own. He arrived right as the store opened, then sprinted right to the store’s massive marketplace, where he’d mapped out exactly where each of the furniture pieces could be found.

He’s skipping new backpacks this year, but planned to buy iPads and a computer printer during the tax-free weekend. “We’re definitely spending more than we were anticipating,” he said.

Some parents, however, see so much uncertainty in the school year that they’re forgoing most spending. “I’m not looking into clothing or any of that stuff — I think they’ll be extremely minimal this year,” said Lynn Higgins, whose two sons attend school in Boston. “I’m not going to kill myself spending extra money.”

For their part, other retailers acknowledge that the 2020 academic year will be unique. The Container Store is offering “home learning solutions.” Walmart’s ads promise that “However you go back, we’ve got your back.” Target has put an emphasis on being “ready for school” in its marketing, with a focus on at-home learning. L.L. Bean’s ads for its backpacks this year remind parents that the carryalls are also really useful for hiking and biking.

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And Staples now has a dedicated team focusing on serving the “learn from home” consumer, said Lang. What’s more, she anticipates that the back-to-school shopping season will extend well into January. “We’re going to be a back-to-school destination whenever that time comes that students go back,” she said.

Still, many point out that the educational gaps between haves and have-nots are not just reflected in how adept a school district is at holding Zoom classes and distributing laptops, or in parents’ ability to form pods or hire private tutors. The purchases that parents are able to make this school year will likely have an impact as well — and expenses like noise-canceling headphones, electronics, and other online learning tools will quickly add up.

“Not only are some parents able to create a dedicated space for at-home learning, but they’re also paying for supplementary tools and apps to keep their kids engaged,” Beitelspacher said. “I really worry about the inequality piece of things.”

In the meantime, some parents, like Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, are just trying to find ways to bring a sense of normalcy to their kids lives. That’s why her sixth-grader now has a locker for his books in their living room. While her son begins his remote learning full time in their Florida district at the end of this month, she says he’ll have to walk up and down stairs from his bedroom to his locker between classes.

“It’s his first year in middle school, and one of the big differences is it’s the first time you have a locker,” she said. “I wanted to try to recreate that experience for him as much as I could.”


Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.