Calgary Sun

Hit the bucks!

Back-to-school shopping set to soar as kids return to class.

- National Lifestyle Editor RITA DEMONTIS @ritademont­is

In the blink of an eye, we're back to back-to-school shopping. Many thought they'd never see this rite of passage again, after living under the shadow of COVID19 and its variants for what seemed like forever.

When the pandemic first hit, schools were shuttered and, for an extraordin­ary 18 months or so, we lived in what seemed like a never-ending lockdown, and everyone learned to navigate the cumbersome, difficult world of online-learning, where even kindergart­en kids mastered the art of the Zoom.

Well, even with all the uncertaint­y in the air about COVID variants, masking and vaccinatio­ns, back-to-school shopping is still a must, as the majority of kids return to bricks-and-mortar classrooms, chalkboard­s and the physical presence of teachers next week.

This is giving hope to retailers. “For many retailers, back-to-school is a critical period second only to Christmas,” notes Retail Council of Canada spokeswoma­n Michelle Wasylyshen in an interview with Bloomberg News. “This year, back-to-school shopping should be huge compared to last year since schools will be returning to in-person at all ages.”

Mental-health experts will tell you there's more at stake than spanking-new back-toschool supplies — research shows there's going to be a bigger emphasis on dealing with the emotional and mental well-being of students who have missed out on everything from in-person learning to seeing their friends in the schoolyard as they return to normal, or near-normal school routines.

That said, who doesn't miss the smell of brand-new stuff? Packaged school supplies, knapsacks to new shoes, colourful pencils to digital equipment, fall clothing and the latest in lunchboxes, to name just a few items students can look forward to.

Back-to-school shopping is back with a vengeance, and consumers are looking to spend record amounts for school and university supplies. Statistics Canada recently reported that retail sales rose 4.2% to $56.2 billion in June.

Meanwhile, according to, school supplies top the list of back-to-school items, followed by electronic­s, clothing and footwear, books and health-related products.

As well, the National Retail Federation, which has been conducting annual back-toschool and back-to-college surveys since 2003, notes on its website that “families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend $848.90 US, $59 more than last year … on back-toschool items.”

The NRF is reporting total back-to-school spending is expected to reach $37.1 billion this year, up from $33.9 billion in 2020, and an all-time high in the survey's history.

“The pandemic forced parents and their school-aged children to quickly adapt to virtual learning, and they did it with an incredible amount of resolve and flexibilit­y,” said NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay in a recent media release.

“We enter the new school year (with) retailers prepared to help find and purchase whatever (parents) need to make this transition as seamless as possible.”

What are the hot-ticket items this year? Research shows electronic­s and clothing have seen the biggest increases, with 49% of those surveyed planning to purchase a laptop, followed by a calculator and a tablet.

In fact, technology has been topping the list of must-have school items.

“The past two school years, Canadians have been purchasing more technology, workspace and networking products,” notes John Defranco, chief commercial officer at Staples Canada, in a recent email interview.

“We've seen an increase in sales for Chromebook­s, printers and headphones.”

Defranco notes the importance of “reliable technology ... to help students stay focused on learning, to keep them on track and to help meet their goals.”

Surprising­ly, according to the NRF, parents are heading out to stores to do the shopping: “While online shopping remains a top destinatio­n for back-to-school shopping, families are much more comfortabl­e shopping in-store this year than last year during the peak of the pandemic.”

All of this planning didn't happen overnight. “Since retail re-opened in July, Interac has seen a 14% growth in debit usage nationally, a reflection of pent-up spending demand as consumers prepared to head into back-to-school and return-to-work mode,” notes Interac on its website.

And perhaps because of the pandemic, back-to-school shopping looks to continue well into the late fall, says Tamara Szames, director and industry advisor for Canadian retail for the NPD Group, specialist­s in market research and trends.

“It's important to notice, as we move deeper into the backto-school shopping season in Canada, that we've been seeing the season go later into the year recently,” she said on Retail Insider. “If we think about 10 years ago, July and August were very much the key months. Now, we're recognizin­g September as another key month in the back-to-school season,” with sale projection­s going well into October.

Where consumers will see growth, adds Szames, is in areas of fashion, including apparel, footwear and beauty products, that “faced an extremely challengin­g 2020,” she said.

“That's where we're going to see some of the biggest growth and move toward recovery back toward 2019 levels.”

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