Back-to-school time has long been one of the busiest shopping seasons of the year as parents rush to snatch up supplies and new clothes for their school-aged children and college-bound students hunt for laptops and dorm accessories.
However, with the coronavirus pandemic still not under control in many parts of the United States, this year's school plans — whether they are in person, online or a hybrid — remain uncertain.
That has stores — including Minnesota-based Target and Best Buy — altering their approach to customers, even as this year's back-to-school season looks to be more critical than most years.
The period is serving as one of the first major tests for retailers as they continue to adjust to an economy — and consumer trends — framed by the coronavirus. Retail analysts expect it will provide a barometer of consumer confidence and also help determine which retailers are gaining momentum going into the all-important holiday season.
"A healthy back-to-school season will be a significant indicator as to whether retailers are making it through or whether they are struggling," said national retail analyst and consultant Carol Spieckerman. "Back-to-school … is a stress test for managing complexity, for quick decisionmaking and for making things happen in real time."
Consumers are expected to spend a record amount of money this year as they buy laptops and other tech accessories in anticipation of at least some classes taking place online, according to a survey released earlier this month by the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Prosper Insights & Analytics.
Total spending to get ready for K-12 and college is predicted to reach $101.6 billion, which would exceed last year's $80.7 billion and top the $100 billion mark for the first time. Parents are expected to spend an average of nearly $790 per family for children grades K-12 and about $1,060 per family for those in college.
The Best Buy in Roseville hadn't yet put up signs for back-to-school deals, but there were a few shoppers last week planning their school purchases.
"We are on our computers a lot more now," said Brianna Reinarts, 21, a rising senior at the University of St. Thomas. "I'm not using notebooks or anything."
Reinarts was browsing MacBooks and laptop sleeves on Thursday afternoon with her roommate to replace a computer that had stopped working.
Lilianna Cooper, 20, was in the store to look at iPads that could help her with interior-design classes at Dunwoody College of Technology.
"I don't really need many supplies," she said.
In addition to its online "student hub" for resources, Best Buy is offering a new "parent hub" this year to provide tech tips on ways to manage distance learning.
Best Buy also has launched a suite of free online courses for students called Geek Squad Academy At Home, inspired by its Geek Squad Academy summer camps, on topics such as smartphone photography, binary code and how to build video games and websites.
"Even though schooling might look different this year for many, we're making it easy for students to save on the tech they need, especially while some are learning remotely," Richfield-based Best Buy said in a statement.
A look at advertising circulars this month point to Minneapolis megaretailer Target being fully in back-to-school mode. Target.com is showcasing the faces of smiling children with backpacks on its homepage.
Yellow pencil posters point to the "school shop" inside Target stores filled with shelves of colorful notebooks, scissors and other essentials. At one of the Woodbury Target stores, bottles of hand sanitizer sat above a display of pencils, sharpeners and erasers.
"Fall learning will look and feel very different this year — and families are balancing a lot," said Jill Sando, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer of Target's style and owned brands, in a statement. "We want our guests to know that we're here for them, no matter what."
Target's back-to-school lineup includes an expanded assortment of basic school supplies in addition to backpacks, accessories, laptops and clothing from its Target brands. Target also has a range of dorm decor and essentials.
While many of Target's displays look similar to what the retailer has done in previous years, Target also acknowledges "at-home learning" on its website with a curated selection of supplies to "study from home."
In addition, Target has extended its Teacher Prep Event from one week to six weeks to give educators extra time to use discounts on select classroom supplies.
Lakeshore Learning Store, which has two locations in the Twin Cities area, will begin its back-to-school sale next month, which is later than it has in the past. Lakeshore sells educational materials such as activity books, hands-on learning items and art supplies to teachers, parents and directly to schools.
"We find ourselves in really the cross section of this uncertainty," said Seth Zimmerman, Lakeshore's chief marketing and creative officer.
Talking about educators and parents, Zimmerman said the California company is "trying to support them any way we can."
Some back-to-school merchants have had to make more dramatic changes in reflection of the times. J&R School Supply in Little Canada went from selling about $20,000 worth of bulk supplies to schools a month to nothing when schools closed, said owner Jason Rengstorf. A bunch of his orders were canceled due to the pandemic, and he is still sitting on supplies from last fall.
"I am getting some orders, but I do feel that schools are a little bit on a wait and see," Rengstorf said.
In the meantime, the family business has pivoted to selling more personal protective equipment including a hand-sanitization station for students that also monitors their temperature.
During economic recessions, back-to-school spending across the board at all stores can lag. But this year, there will be clear retail winners based on what products they sell, said Joe Redden, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota.
"I think the general retailers like Targets and Walmarts, they are generally OK. … Some things they are selling less and some things they are selling more," Redden said. "I would think specialty stores, like just clothing and just shoes, it's hard to imagine that they aren't going to be hit quite a bit."
While back-to-school demand is usually spread out with deal hunters shopping earlier in the season, there will likely be a concentrated rush when parents find out exactly what schools are planning in their region, Redden said.
In Minnesota, a decision about whether students will return to in-person classes is expected to be announced this week.
For some retailers, the uncertainty could play in their favor as parents are forced to buy items for all the possible scenarios, Redden said.
"If my kids are going to school half the time, I'm still going to have to buy all the stuff."