Masks, Gloves and Disinfectants Top Back-To-School Shopping Lists

By Ad Age Staff | Ad Age

Despite uncertainty, 92 percent of parents will buy school supplies, the Ad Age-Harris poll finds

The must-have back-to-school accessories this year aren’t the bedazzled backpacks or superhero lunchboxes of years past. This fall, it’s all about cleaning supplies and protective gear. Children heading back to the classroom are as likely to be carrying face masks, gloves and disinfectant wipes as they are to be sporting the latest fashionable jeans and logo T-shirts.

According to the new Ad Age-Harris poll, cleaning supplies, including disinfectant spray and wipes, are just as important as pencils and paper to parents purchasing back-to-school supplies for the upcoming 2020-2021 academic year. Personal protective equipment, including face masks and gloves, is not far behind. The poll was conducted among 339 adults—181 men and 158 women—last week.

Regardless of whether their children will attend in-person or at home, back-to-school shopping is still a must for the vast majority of shoppers, or 92 percent, according to the poll.

Of course, typical desk supplies are still important. While many parents are still waiting to hear whether their schools will reopen, or to decide if they will send their children for classroom instruction, 58 percent say they plan to purchase stationery and desk supplies, 57 percent will purchase cleaning and disinfecting supplies and 52 percent will buy personal protective equipment.

Rounding out the shopping lists are apparel (51 percent), backpacks (44 percent), electronics, including laptops and printers (30 percent) and mobile phones (27 percent). Ten percent of parents plan to make other purchases or buy nothing.

Deloitte predicts that back-to-school spending will be up marginally, with total spending for 2020 to reach $27.8 billion, or 2 percent more than 2019.

Real-time pivots

Marketers are paying attention; many have been forced to make campaign decisions in real time as districts announce learning plans for the fall. Uncertainty surrounds the back-to-school season amid the coronavirus pandemic. As Ad Age has reported, districts including Los Angeles and San Diego have committed to distance learning as infections increase. New York City is pursuing a mix of in-school and virtual classes.

Parents remain divided as well. Nearly half of Americans with children under the age of 18, or 47 percent, report that their children’s school will have some form of in-classroom instruction for the 2020-2021 academic year. But only 26 percent of parents nationwide plan to send their children to class instruction full-time, while 34 percent plan to educate their children at home via home-schooling or online instruction. Seventeen percent of parents plan to send their children for classroom instruction part time and augment with home schooling.

As of July 20, back-to-school advertising was down nearly 50 percent compared with the same period in 2019, according to data from market research firm Numerator. Target was one of the earliest brands to begin TV advertising for the back-to-school season; both the Minneapolis-based chain and Walmart are currently running national ads.

Focus on electronics

Many brands are pushing electronic devices in case children end up learning remotely; others, like Kohl’s, are also advertising protective gear such as face masks. Several brands are more reliant on digital marketing, where they are able to localize their messaging to target regions that may have differing back-to-school plans.

Macy’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods both debuted back-to-school campaigns in recent days. Dick’s is promoting its apparel—Ed Plummer, chief marketing officer of the sporting goods chain, told Ad Age that children will still want to look stylish, whether they are on camera or in a physical classroom. Macy’s embraced a similar approach with a spot airing July 26 that shows kids working at home with their parents or playing outside. The commercial’s text reads “No matter how we school, let’s be ready.”