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Back-to-school shopping: Pandemic causing sales to shift toward electronics over traditional school supplies
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Back-to-school shopping: Pandemic causing sales to shift toward electronics over traditional school supplies

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Amy Lynn Ferry normally spends early August buying take home folders, decorating pencil boxes stocked with supplies and making bookmarks for each of her first-grade students.

This year, however, Ferry won’t need to stock up on her usual school supplies for her students at Highland Springs Elementary School in Henrico County. The school year will start off virtually.

But the list of supplies her students will need to buy will be longer than usual this year since they won’t have access to any of the communal classroom supplies.

“I think the cost will be higher based on what we’re asking for,” Ferry said. “I think it’ll be higher for families because it’s something that the schools put on families to provide.”

This year’s back-to-school shopping will be unusual.

Sales should increase this year compared with a year ago, some experts say, largely because students will be buying more computers and other electronics for virtual learning.

Parents likely will buy fewer traditional back-to-school clothes since many students will be learning virtually at home. But parents will be buying different school supplies than normal to compensate for the fact that students won’t be able to use communal classroom supplies if they are learning from home.

“Most of those who are anticipating some portion of e-learning this year are planning to purchase items specifically for a virtual environment,” said Katherine Cullen, senior director of industry and consumer insights for the National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade organization. “This includes larger electronics, like laptops or desktops, as well as speakers and headphones and other categories like desks, lamps and workbooks.”

Back-to-school spending nationally is expected to total $33.9 billion, up from $26.2 billion last year, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey. Families with children in elementary school through high school plan to spend an average of $789, while those with children in college plan to spend an average of $1,059.

Much of the increase in spending is largely due to more parents buying computers and other electronics, with 63% of K-12 families in the survey saying they plan to buy those items, up from 54% last year.

Deloitte’s annual back-to-school survey found spending likely will remain flat this year, with spending for K-12 students at about $529 per student and about $1,345 per college student. Spending also is shifting toward digital products over more traditional items, the Deloitte survey found.

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Virginia’s sales tax-free weekend, from Aug. 7 through Aug. 9, should allow families to save some money. Consumers won’t be paying sales tax on many items next weekend, including certain school supplies under $20 and clothing and shoes under $100.

The tax exemption also applies to certain hurricane and emergency preparedness products, such as portable generators priced at $1,000 or less and gas-powered chain saws selling for less than $350. Also tax-free are Energy Star and WaterSense appliances priced at $2,500 or less.

Tax-free items can be bought in stores, online and by phone.

The tax-free period has been held annually in Virginia during the first weekend in August since 2006.

“It’s usually a very big hit and a successful weekend. The sales tax holiday always lends itself to large and small retailers in terms of enhancing the foot traffic in their stores,” said Jodi Roth, the director of government affairs for the Virginia Retail Federation. “When customers are in the stores buying their school supplies, they’ll also pick up other things.”

The tax-free weekend is advantageous for the consumer and the retailer, she said.

Shoppers might save even more during that weekend as many retailers have opted to pick up the sales tax on items that aren’t on the list of allowable tax-exempt merchandise.

But Roth doesn’t expect this year’s tax-free weekend to be as successful as previous years, despite predictions for record-breaking back-to-school spending.

“The main reason is that the majority of school systems are doing virtual learning. For a lot of parents, there won’t be a need to go out and buy those new school clothes and shoes and a lot of necessities needed for in-person learning,” she said.

For instance, Roth plans to spend less money than usual this back-to-school season. Her children, who are in high school and college, will need fewer supplies for virtual learning, she said.

“The majority of the work is going to be done on their laptop. There will be no turning in of work because that would mean physical contact. Paper won’t be needed,” she said. “Even basic supplies that people normally have to purchase when going back to school won’t be needed.”

High school students who rely on their laptop for most of their work anyway may have fewer supply needs.

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Most elementary school students will be expected to purchase more supplies than usual, like those in Ferry’s first-grade class at Highland Springs Elementary School.

Parents of those students are typically asked to buy crayons, Lysol wipes, scissors, glue sticks, pencils and a journal, Ferry said. She provides the rest of her students’ supplies.

This year, the first-grade school supply list includes a whiteboard, dry erase markers, a journal for each subject, foam counters, a pencil sharpener, a calendar, Play-Doh, a highlighter, a dry erase pocket for handwriting exercises, and headphones, in addition to the usual items.

Back-to-school shopping, which is the second-biggest retail season behind the December holidays, will be especially important this year as retailers recover from a difficult few months during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think it’ll be [a] hard hit, in addition to the other hard hits businesses have been taking lately with COVID-19, with property damage and with customers not feeling comfortable shopping in person,” Roth said. “Virtual learning is just one more factor that is going to affect their bottom line significantly.”

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Technology retailers could see higher demand  with families shopping for different items than usual this back-to-school season, Roth said.

“I don’t really know that virtual learning is going to help many retailers, other than maybe the tech industry, where parents may want to [upgrade] their home learning center for their kids.”

Spending on electronics or computer-related equipment is expected to increase more than any other category, according to the National Retail Federation’s survey.

Seventy-two percent of families whose children will be taking classes from home expect to buy computers, home furnishings or other supplies for virtual learning, the survey found.

The back-to-school season has already looked different at the Best Buy near Chesterfield Towne Center mall.

The “hot items” this year are any products that will help with at-home learning or at-home teaching, said Matthew Early, the general manager of Best Buy on Koger Center Boulevard.

“People want to make sure their home networks are up and running and capable of supporting the number of devices that are on it,” he said. “Online learning will cause a bigger drain on people’s networks than usual, so people are asking for help with that.”

Many customers also are looking for webcams, an external mouse or keyboard, and extra monitors.

“There seems to be a lot more people who need advice and help, versus people who come in and know exactly what they want,” Early said. “They want anything that will help them have a better at-home learning or teaching experience.”

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Some families are delaying their usual back-to-school shopping for clothes and shoes.

Back-to-school season is normally one of the busiest for Saxon Shoes in the Short Pump Town Center in western Henrico. So far, the store hasn’t seen as much business as usual, said Gary Weiner, president and CEO of the family-owned Saxon Shoes, which also has a store in The Village at Spotsylvania Towne Centre in Fredericksburg.

“We’ve had some foot traffic for kids’ shoes in the store these past few weeks, and we do expect it to build as we get closer to school; we just don’t think it’ll be what it has been in the past,” Weiner said.

He expects the store to see a “pretty nice bump” during the tax-free weekend. But he doesn’t think Saxon Shoes will be as busy as usual because of virtual learning.

“There’s no real urgency to come in and get some new [shoes] for the back-to-school season because a lot of people just aren’t going back to school and others aren’t sure,” he said.

The store has been doing more of its business online lately, especially after being closed during the coronavirus pandemic.

The National Retail Federation’s survey found 43% of consumers plan to do more of their back-to-school shopping online than usual because of COVID-19.

“We’re trying to do a few things a little more digitally, even though in all honesty we much prefer to fit children’s shoes in person to make sure they get the right size,” Weiner said.

When students and teachers eventually return to school for in-person classes, they’ll need their usual school supplies and back-to-school wardrobe, he said.

When Ferry’s first-grade class resumes in-person classes possibly as soon as November, she’ll buy the pencil boxes and other supplies she usually needs for her classroom.

“I was walking out of Walmart the other day, and I was looking at all of the buckets of crayons, glue and other school supplies and I thought, ‘They should hold off and do this again in nine weeks,’” she said.

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