Parents spending more on school supplies than ever before as retailers cater to virtual learning

Virtual learning has parents spending up to $789.49 on average per family

Back-to-school spending is reaching record highs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, with some parents building makeshift classrooms spaces at home.

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Sarina Appel, a New York City-based mom of two elementary-aged kids entering third and fifth grade, says she’s already spent hundreds of dollars on back-to-school-related supplies and furniture to turn her family’s playroom into a makeshift classroom, complete with new shelving, bookcases and other electronics — like a new router to crank up the WiFi throughout their Manhattan apartment.

Parents are spending an average of $789.49 per family on back-to-school supplies at home, up from $696.70 from last year. (iStock)

“We’re investing in a home school environment during remote learning,” Appel, who works in public relations, told FOX Business Monday.

“It’s way more than just a backpack and a hundred dollars of supplies as in previous years,” Appel said.

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She’s hardly alone. Parents with kids in elementary school through high school say they plan to shell out $789.49 on average per family, surpassing the previous record of $696.70 they said they spent last year on supplies, according to the most recent report from the National Retail Federation, the country’s largest retail trade group.

What’s more, overall spending is expected to reach $33.9 billion, up from $26.2 billion last year, breaking the last record of $30.3 billion set in 2012, according to NRF data. And retail experts suggest that the uncertainty surrounding when — and if — kids will be able to get back into the classroom full-time, coupled with more parents homeschooling their kids as a result of the coronavirus, is what is driving spending on supplies and electronics, like tablets, laptops and more.

“By any measure, this is an unprecedented year with great uncertainty, including how students will get their education this fall whether they are in kindergarten or college,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement. “Most parents don’t know whether their children will be sitting in a classroom or in front of a computer in the dining room, or a combination of the two. But they do know the value of an education and are navigating uncertainty and unknowns so that students are prepared.”

And it appears that parents are spending the most money on electronics. Indeed, nearly a third of parents expect to spend more on technology (30%) and remote workspace enhancements (27%) this year compared to last year, according to a separate report from credit card company American Express' Trendex report with tracks consumer spending and saving trends. What's more, nearly half (49%) expect to spend less on clothing and accessories.

As a result, a number of retailers had a slow start to marketing this year, especially with fewer consumers browsing back-to-school displays and opting to shop online. Companies like Walmart, Target, Kohl’s and Amazon were all running fewer ads during the month of July compared to the same time last year, according to data from Numerator as reported by Barrons.

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“According to the data, we’re seeing that there has been a dramatic change in the way that people are doing their back-school-shopping. There has been about a 110 to 120% increase in people shopping on online retail sites versus a 10 to 20% decrease in shopping in brick-and-mortar stores," said Will Margiloff, chief strategy officer of Zeta Global, a marketing technology company.

And with virtual learning continuing in most parts of the country with some parents even setting up “learning pods” — neighborhood communities where three to four kids participate in virtual learning or outdoor sports — retailers are now catering with inventory geared toward virtual learning tools. Indeed, Best Buy has implemented a new feature called Parent Hub, giving parents helpful tools and tips on how to make learning at home for kids easier and effective with products like webcams, headsets, tablets, e-Readers and kids' learning software.

Amazon also launched a back-to-school store on its site, offering essentials like notebooks, pencils, markers and crayons in bulk, in addition to pint-sized face shields for kids to wear while playing outdoors.

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Other big-box retailers like Sam’s Club have also beefed up their supply of lap desks for kids at home, in addition to headphones and other electronics for virtual learning. And Office Depot and Barnes & Noble will also have back-to-school sales through September.