U.S. inflation has raised product prices and impacted consumer spending, while families are adjusting to a broad return to in-person learning after pandemic-driven distance learning.
Overall, parents do appear to be planning to spend more this back-to-school season
However, more parents than ever say they plan to reuse school supplies they already have, cut down on frivolous expenses and find the best prices.
So what does this really mean for back-to-school spending and what parents are buying online in 2022? We looked at Amazon keywords and sales data to find some real answers.
Online school supplies spending is trending down through 2022 — but there are some winning products
First, we examine how consumers respond to economic forces and how this affects their product searches and shopping behavior.
Yes, Inflation Can Affect School Supplies Too
Inflation, already over 9%, continues to have a profound effect on most businesses and consumers . Gasoline and groceries aren't the only categories affected by inflation-related price increases.
Prices of essentials such as backpacks rose 10%, and lunch boxes rose 8%. The same goes for back-to-school kits, which are up 16 percent.
In fact, off-the-shelf back-to-school kits have become increasingly attractive to parents this year, with revenue from the kits soaring 680% in the last month.
Consumers want to save money
About 38% of consumers say their household income is not stable, and more than half (52%) say they only buy discounted items. Consumers will likely be looking for ways to save this back-to-school season, even if it means cutting budgets for other household expenses. (In fact, the National Retail Federation survey also found that more households plan not to travel or use their savings to fight back-to-school prices.)
Bulk buying is also one way consumers are trying to beat inflation this back-to-school season. Bestsellers bought in bulk include:
Crayola Classic Color Pack Crayons (4-pack) saw an 833% increase in revenue
Mead Spiral Notebooks (pack of 18) revenue increased 138%
Two Tone Backpacks (pack of 24) increased revenue by 7,216%
Back-to-school searches drop on Amazon
A less anticipated shopping trend this year is a shift from online shopping to in-store shopping. The survey found that 49% of parents plan to shop in-store at major retailers , while 16% say they plan to shop at online-only retailers.
From July 1 to 31, searches for the keywords "back to school" and "back to school supplies" increased by 270% and 316%, respectively. However, compared to 2021, searches for the keywords "back to school" are actually down about 66%, and "back to school supplies" is down 68%.
While keyword searches for school supplies and children's clothing increased last month, they also declined significantly year-over-year.
Here's an example of the types of searches consumers make on Amazon:
Back to School Kit: 336% increase over the past 30 days (July 1 to July 31, 2022)
Back-to-School Supplies: Up 316% over the past 30 days (July 1-July 31, 2022), down from July 2021 (up 1006%)
Back to School: From July 1 to July 31, 2022, an increase of 270%. However, this is down from the same period in 2021 (up 739%)
School Supplies: From July 1 to July 31, 2022, an increase of 88%, but a decrease of 129% compared to the increase of 217% in July 2021
Back-to-School Uniforms: Up 113% in July 2022, less than in July 2021 (up 496%
) School Backpacks: Up 147% in July 2022, down from July 2021 (up 2512%)
Back to School Shirts: Up 335% in July 2022, down from July 2021 (up 380% in 2021)
Womenswear: Up 10% in July 2022, down from July 2021 (up 42%)
Menswear: Up 16% in July 2022, down from July 2021 (up 42%)
Based on search volume alone, it appears to be business as usual for purveyors of back-to-school staples. Amazon's unit sales and revenue, however, are another story.
Revenues and unit sales fell in some school supply categories — but not all
Revenues in some of Amazon's school supply categories were lower compared with last year's sales figures, as U.S. consumers braced for in-person learning in the second quarter.
Here's a breakdown of how Amazon's back-to-school revenue was formed, comparing the period from June 1 to August 1, 2022, with the same period in 2021.
Categories showing negative growth
J saw negative year-over-year growth in revenue and unit sales in some surprising segments. An important caveat to the analysis is that while the entire school supplies category appears to be in decline this year, the leading brands and products in each category typically show positive year-over-year revenue.
Category revenue for children's lunch boxes fell 36% in June-July 2022 compared to the same period in 2021, and unit sales fell 31%. Consumers may be reacting to higher product costs (8% annual growth in this category – annual price increases) and using them longer before replacing old lunch boxes.
Despite a 12% year-over-year decline in costs for the category, sales of pencil cases weren't great. By 2022, revenue is down 20% and unit sales are down 11%. Pencil cases may also fall into the category of items that are reused, as consumers are looking for ways to save money, or students may simply be digitizing with fewer pencils when they work more.
First day of school
The first day of school pictures with personalized logos continues to flood social media. However, through 2022, revenue is down 14% and unit sales are down 8%. Parents and guardians must make homemade versions or reuse versions from past years to keep costs down.
Categories showing positive growth
With the return to class, online shopping carts are full of "basics." This is a change from the past two years when consumers have invested in home learning technology.
Back to School Kit
The appeal of one-stop shopping can be seen in the popularity of back-to-school kits, such as this bestseller with 32 essentials . Revenue in the category was up 136%, with unit sales up 115%.
Consumers are still buying classic composition and spiral books, such as Mead's best-selling multipack . Overall, revenue was up 24% year over year and laptop sales were up 23% year over year. The category is on the rise after a 39% decline in unit sales and a 34% decline in revenue in 2021.
The allure of a shiny new backpack like this bestseller has consumers willing to pay. Despite a 10% increase in category costs this year, unit sales of backpacks were up 6% year over year and revenue was up 15% year over year. This contrasts with a 43% decline in revenue and unit sales last year.
What will happen to back-to-school shopping in 2022?
Whatever the reason, it's clear that consumer spending on school supplies isn't as robust as it was in 2021 at the peak of the summer season, or even in the pre-pandemic days. Yet even as inflation continues to hit the economy, many parents are likely to do everything in their power to ensure their children have everything they need for the school year.
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