US back-to-school ecommerce sales will grow more than 13% this year

The news: Even after last year’s spike, US back-to-school ecommerce sales will grow another 13.3% this year to $41.26 billion, according to our latest estimates.

By the numbers:

  • We expect a strong rebound in back-to-school sales overall in 2021. After declining by 4.6% last year, total back-to-school sales will grow by 9.3% in 2021 to reach $95.83 billion. Our estimates align with a May 2021 survey from KPMG, which found that this year’s average back-to-school spending will be $268 per child among US consumers who plan to buy school supplies. That’s up nearly 9% from similar polling in 2020. Diving further, the survey found that spending for preschool and college students will see the largest increases, up 32% and 13%, respectively. High school and middle school students, meanwhile, will see more modest increases in spending, at 4% and 3%, respectively.
  • The shift toward online shopping over the past year will continue to push back-to-school sales online. Notably, Amazon Prime Day, which took place in June this year, may have pulled forward some back-to-school spending, but we still expect the bulk of sales to occur in July and August. Ecommerce as a whole will grow its share of total back-to-school sales, increasing from 41.5% in 2020 to 43.1% this year, per our forecast. That’s a gain of more than 10 percentage points compared with 2019 (31.5%).
  • Apparel is expected to see particularly strong growth as many students prepare for a return to in-person classes. Another May survey, from Shopkick, found that 60% of US back-to-school shoppers said most of their budgets will go toward apparel this year, while only 10% expected to spend most on technology. Electronics will likely see less demand this season compared with 2020, as the return to in-person classes lessens the need for such products. That said, the use of hybrid models in many classes will likely keep demand above pre-pandemic levels.

Two challenges facing this back-to-school season:

  • Rising prices. Disruptions to supply chains and the resulting shortages are sparking some concerns about the rising costs of school supplies. The KPMG survey found that among US consumers who expected to spend more per child this season, 39% said it was because sticker prices are going up. This expectation among shoppers may lead to a greater focus on price comparison and bargain hunting this year. These activities could be made slightly easier if consumers choose to do more of their shopping online.
  • The mental health of students. A March poll from Navigate360 found that the majority of 16- to 17-year-olds in the US feel unprepared to handle their anxiety about returning to the classroom in the fall. It’s important to remember that many students under the age of 18 are still not vaccinated, as the US only recently expanded vaccine eligibility to those ages 12 and older. Marketers should be careful about the tone of back-to-school ads that may exacerbate some of the concerns students have about returning to in-person learning in the fall.

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