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Back-to-school shoppers are spending more than ever—and buying smartphones for grade-schoolers

Trapper Keepers, erasable pens, marbled composition books—they’ve been replaced by laptops, tablets, and speakers as today’s must-haves.
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· 3 min read

Trapper Keepers, erasable pens, marbled composition books—man, does that take us way, way, way back.

All enjoyed the fun of being trendy back-to-school essentials. But that was then, and this is now: Laptops, tablets, and speakers are the modern-day must-haves.

It’s electr(on)ic: The pandemic forced students to lean on tech last year, and even without Zoom School, that’s where a lot of back-to-school spending will go in 2021.

  • Spending on electronics is predicted to reach $12.9 billion this year, or $296 per household. That’s up from $274 per household in 2020, according to NRF.
  • Spending on traditional back-to-school products is predicted to increase only 2%, compared to 37% on tech, per a July Deloitte survey.

A new shift? Younger kids are getting smartphones, as opposed to just middle or high school students, Katherine Cullen, senior director of industry and consumer insights for the NRF’s research team, said during a July webinar.

“This year we saw elementary school students are the most likely group to be receiving a smartphone. Maybe after a year at home, families want their younger kids to be able to stay in touch a bit more,” Cullen said.

Location, location, location: Overall back-to-school spending is projected to surpass $37 billion this year, or $849 per household, a figure that has risen since 2007, when it was $18.4 billion ($563.49 per household), according to NRF. But where that shopping is taking place has evolved.

  • Parents of K-12 students plan on shopping at online retailers (49%) and dollar stores (41%) more than they did last year, per Deloitte.
  • 34% will use BOPIS and curbside pickup to facilitate their back-to-school shopping.

“Last year in August, we saw notebook sales jumping almost 30% online,” Inna Kuznetsova, CEO of software firm 1010data, told Retail Brew. “Clearly, students haven’t started using 30% more notebooks. It just tells you more of the purchase shifted online.”

Looking ahead: The uncertainty around the Delta variant may extend the back-to-school shopping season, but shouldn’t have an effect on overall spend, Katie Thomas, lead at the Kearney Consumer Institute, told us.

“When I look at numbers around foot traffic, you're seeing an uptick for the first time in weeks, if not months, in terms of general avoidance of public places,” Thomas said. “It'll benefit the retailers who were able to make more longstanding changes...rather than just a Band-Aid trying to get through the pandemic.”


All the trends. Stackline Trends brings you insights from over 300 billion consumer e-commerce searches. And this back-to-school season, Stackline can help you get early insight into the trends parents and students care about. Learn more here.*

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