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Back-to-school spending could hit a record as parents buy costly technology for kids at home

Customers shop for back to school supplies at a Target Corp. store in Colma, California.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Parents may not yet know whether their children will be sitting in a classroom, or at the dining room table, when classes resume later this year. 

But after many schools were forced shut by the coronavirus pandemic in the spring, they’re undoubtedly looking at back-to-school supplies a bit differently in 2020. 

The result of the shift: Spending is predicted to hit a record this back-to-school season, as parents stock up on expensive technology like laptops, tablets and headphones. 

Parents of kids in elementary through high school plan to spend an average $789.49 per family, topping a previous record of $696.70, the National Retail Federation found in its annual survey. It polled 7,481 consumers from July 1 to July 8. Overall back-to-school spending is expected to hit $33.9 billion, up from $26.2 billion in 2019 and breaking a prior record of $30.3 billion in 2012, the survey said. 

Spending on college students, meantime, is expected to be $1,059.20 per family, which would top last year’s record of $976.78. Total back-to-college spending is forecast by NRF to amount to $67.7 billion, which would break 2018’s record. 

“By any measure, this is an unprecedented year with great uncertainty, including how students will get their education this fall whether they are in kindergarten or college,” NRF Chief Executive Matt Shay said in a statement. He added that parents are navigating the uncertainty by making sure students are prepared with the right tools if learning is forced online. 

Fifty-five percent of the consumers polled by NRF said they expect to take “at least some” classes at home this fall. And of those expecting to be home, 72% plan to buy electronics like laptops and home furnishings like desks — items considered nontraditional school supplies. 

Overall, 63% of K-12 families plan to buy computers and other electronics this year, up from 54% in 2019. For college students, 60% of them plan to buy electronics, up from 53% a year ago. 

As more parents are planning to shop online this back-to-school season, bricks-and-mortar destinations like department stores and apparel shops could suffer. For K-12 students, only 37% of parents plan to go to department stores, NRF found, down from 53% a year ago. And just 30% plan to visit clothing stores, down from 45% in 2019. 

A survey by Deloitte released earlier this month found 66% of parents are anxious about sending their kids to the classroom again this fall due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The anxiety finds its source in several different places: Some parents are worried about their children falling behind academically. There are also health and safety concerns, and worries about finances. Thirty-eight percent of people indicated “high financial concern” regarding the upcoming school season, Deloitte said. The unemployment rate in the U.S. is currently 11.1%, with millions out of work. 

Read the full back-to-school survey from NRF here. 

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