Data: Back-to-school spending eyes COVID-era peak despite Delta variant fear

After a chaotic year of remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic, back to school spending is projected to bounce back stronger than ever, new data showed on Thursday.

According to consulting firm Deloitte's 14th annual Back-to-School report, which surveyed 1,200 parents of school-aged children between May 27 and June 5, researchers estimated that back-to-school spending is expected to rise 16% year-over-year — from $28.1 billion in 2020 to $32.5 billion this year. 

Back-to-school spending will also be up around 17% compared to the last pre-pandemic year in 2019, according to the firm. Deloitte's data echoed a recent report from MasterCard, which expects splurging parents to spend 25% more than they did last year. 

This means parents will be spending an average of $612 per child, "the highest amount in recent years," according to Deloitte.

“As Americans anticipate a more traditional return to the back-to-school season, the good news is that parents are ready to spend more and earlier to ensure their children have what they need to be successful," said Rod Sides, the firm's vice chairman and head of U.S. retail and distribution. 

Two in five parents are expecting to spend more on back-to-school supplies, compared to one in five last year, "with the majority of those saying their children need more items this year," the data found. 

What K-12 parents are buying for school

Parents are planning to spend more on digital tools like laptops and tablets, as compared to traditional products, said Deloitte, projecting a 37% year-over-year increase in tech products. 

They also intend to shell out 42% more this year on COVID-19-related products like wet wipes, hand sanitizers, and on desks and chairs for remote school.

About 59% of back-to-school spending is expected to wrap up by the end of July, Deloitte projected, "in part because they expect lingering COVID-19 disruptions to keep some key items off the shelves." 

Meanwhile, 48% of families said they planned to spend most of their budget at "mass merchant stores" or big-box retailers, as compared to online-only stores or dollar stores.

Though expected spend on clothing and accessories is considerably lower than it was in 2020 and particularly 2019, children in higher-income households are more interested in athleisure and fashionable clothing in the fall, the report flagged.

Families expressed more confidence about the economy's prospects this year, up from 17% in 2020 to 55%. Correspondingly, households also feel more financially stable, with 78% of respondents reporting that they feel like they're in better shape in 2021.

Yet there's also evidence parents are starting to feel the sticker-shock of higher prices across a range of goods and services. For consumers who are planning to lavish more spending on back-to school, 45% said they find that prices are generally higher than last year, up from 31% in 2019, Sides told Yahoo Finance.

But at the same time, going back to school isn't the same for all children across America in K-12 schools. Deloitte estimated that while 62% of respondents indicated that their child will be attending in-person schooling, 11% said that school is likely to be virtual, and 19% said it's likely to be hybrid (in-person and virtual). 

About half of the parents surveyed added that they were anxious about sending their child back to school, particularly as the Delta variant of COVID-19 stokes fears about a new wave of infections.

College spending also expected to go up

Meanwhile, in a separate survey of 941 parents of college-aged students between May 28 and June 17, Deloitte found similar patterns. For that cohort, average online spending is projected to be up 8% year-over-year, to around $1,500 per student. That's a total of $26.7 billion in 2021 compared to $25.4 billion last year.

And 34% of parents are expecting to spend more this year compared to 23% last year. The focus is on electronic gadgets, computers, as well as dorm furniture and apartment furniture for middle-income families.

About 60% of parents said their college-aged student had already been fully vaccinated as of June 17, with 20% indicating plans to do so in the next three months.

Only 9% chose not to vaccinate their children.

Aarthi is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. She can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.

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