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SHIFT HAPPENS: Back to School 2021

As part of our recurring #ShiftHappens series, we share insights from top retail executives and industry thought leaders that help identify the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the retail industry and its consumers.


In this month’s release, you’ll hear insights from the following retail thought leaders on what the back-to-school shopping season looks like this year and the changes retailers are implementing to meet new consumer demands. 


Katherine Cullen, Sr. Dir of Industry and Consumer Insights at The National Retail Federation

Sandrine Crener, Program Director at Harvard Business School 

Mina Fader, Managing Director of Wharton’s Baker Retailing Center at the University of Pennsylvania

Beatrice Mac Cabe, Chief Creative Officer at Vera Bradley

Tom McGee, President and CEO of ICSC

Mary Rodgers, Director of Marketing Communications at Cuisinart

Jason Stuckey, General Manager, North America at Linnworks

Jill Sando, Executive Vice President and CMO at Target

Ron Thurston, Former VP of Stores at Intermix / Author of Retail Pride



Record-breaking sales signal

a “return to normal”



Katherine Cullen

Despite the ongoing uncertainty caused by the pandemic and the threat of new variants, this back-to-class shopping season is looking a little more normal than last year and spending is expected to reach record levels.



Tom McGee

As states across the country continue to fully reopen, the majority of consumers are returning to their pre-pandemic shopping behaviors. Consumer confidence and spending will be the driving force that helps to reinvigorate the U.S. economy. Back-to-school and the upcoming holiday shopping seasons will contribute to elevating profits to the levels we saw prior to the pandemic.

Source: ICSC


Ron Thurston

I think it’s going to be a fantastic back-to-school season. But we also need to recognize that we have a lot of work to do in stores to ensure they feel supported enough to deliver this growth in business.





Source NRFs Annual 2021 Back to Schhol Survey





Supply chain challenges

lead to earlier shopping



Mary Rodgers:

Parents are planning much further ahead due to issues in the supply chain. This year, people are buying much earlier than they had in the past, knowing that if they wait too close to the school season, then they may not be able to get the things they want for their children.



Jason Stuckey

Continued uncertainty around the pandemic is creating stress in the supply chain, the impact of which is starting to be felt at the consumer level. Unlike previous years where retailers could predict product demand and footfall with some confidence, supply chain challenges may result in consumers shopping earlier or later, as well as potential stockouts and unmet demand.



Katherine Cullen

Retailers have been preparing for the back-to-school shopping season for months, including holding end-of-June sales and ordering stock ahead of time to combat supply chain shortages.




Source 2021 Deloitte Back to School Survey




Convenience and ease

are top of mind for school shoppers


Jason Stuckey

While this year’s back-to-school season will better reflect pre-pandemic shopping patterns than in 2020, it’s expected that the convenience and ease of online retail has created a permanent shift towards online shopping for everyday essentials.



Jill Sando

Whether returning to in-person learning, continuing to learn from home or moving into a dorm room for the first time, Target is prepared to help our guests with everything they need for the season—with the best assortment, shopping experience and value—all in one convenient click or trip.

Source: Target





Source Linnworks The Effortless Economy A New Age for Retail




Beatrice Mac Cabe

The last year has been full of difficult decisions for everyone, so we’re trying to ease decision making for her with handsfree styles, and the versatility of a portable workspace since back-to-school is about teachers as well as students.



Katherine Cullen

Many retailers are utilizing services offered throughout the pandemic, such as BOPIS and curbside pickup, to help families and students feel comfortable while shopping for back-to-school items.



Mina Fader

This year, social media platforms are likely to play a bigger role in the back-to-school shopping experience than in the past.




Sandrine Crener

COVID has been a huge trend accelerator for e-commerce and omnichannel is here to stay. Today’s consumers are increasingly educated, informed, and sophisticated. They are much more demanding. They want convenience, authenticity and transparency, meaning and purpose, innovation, entertainment and sustainability. The pandemic has also highlighted people’s fundamental need for social relationships and human contact.

Creating meaningful social experiences is a huge opportunity for retail, both in-store and online. Finally, digitalization is probably one of the most significant transformations of retail today. It affects all aspects of the business: forms of commerce, purchasing processes, reach and accessibility, new communications channels, new forms of pricing and distribution, etc.