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What Will Back-to-School Look Like at U.S. Malls in the Midst of COVID-19?

Some malls are still holding back-to-school marketing events, but outdoors, with attendance limits and social distancing guidelines.

The COVID-19 pandemic is shaking up the back-to-school shopping season as it has impacted just about every aspect of the U.S. retail sector.

The health crisis is forcing school districts around the country to struggle with big decisions regarding reopening schools. Do they offer in-person classes, virtual-only learning or a mix of in-school and digital learning? Much remains up in the air, even though the start of the school year is right around the corner.

Experts say these uncertainties are impacting retail sales, including when parents shop and what they purchase. Parents are starting back-to-school shopping later this year due to the concerns of what the school year will look like. This is all significant because the back-to-school shopping season is the second-most important season for retailers, after the winter holidays.

Consulting firm Deloitte is projecting that $28.1 billion, or $529 per student, will be spent on back-to-school items this year, relatively flat from 2019. In its 2020 back-to-school survey, Deloitte found that stronger spending on technology (up 28 percent over 2019) should basically offset big drops in spending on apparel and traditional back-to-school supplies.

The National Retail Federation’s (NRF) findings are far more optimistic. In its annual back-to-school survey, the NRF projected that back-to-school spending could hit a record this year as parents purchase expensive technology items like laptops and computer accessories to prepare for online classes.

NRF reported that parents of children in elementary through high school said they planned to spend an average of $789.49 per family, higher than the previous record of $696.70. Spending is expected to total $33.9 billion, up from $26.2 billion last year, and break the record of $30.3 billion set in 2012.

“The back-to-school shopping season will certainly look different this year due to the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the uncertainty many families are facing in terms of how classes will take place,” says Katherine Cullen, senior director of industry and consumer insights for the NRF’s research team.

In addition to impacting what people are buying, Cullen says the pandemic is influencing how families are planning to shop. According to NRF’s survey, more families are anticipating shopping online this year for back-to-school supplies. Overall, 43 percent plan to shop more online, although that could be at bricks-and-mortar retailers’ websites.

In addition to focusing on engaging consumers digitally, malls and brands are opening outdoor spaces for safer shopping during the pandemic, Cullen points out.

“Some malls have begun placing cabanas in the parking lots outside for retailers to occupy as pop-ups,” she notes. “Retailers have also been focusing on services like buy online, pick up in store or curbside pick-up, as well as contactless payment methods to help ensure consumers’ peace of mind.”

Back-to-school mall marketing events are big consumer draws; what about this year?

“Malls across our portfolio typically hold events to welcome the school community—from teachers to students to parents—into our properties for all their back-to-school needs,” says Heather Crowell, executive vice president of strategy and communication at PREIT. The Philadelphia-based REIT owns and operates roughly 22 million sq. ft. of retail space in regional malls across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Last year, for example, PREIT’s Moorestown Mall in Moorestown, N.J., hosted a “First Day Back to School for Parents” with free hot breakfast, a story time for children not yet in school, a craft activity, and a swag bag from one of the mall’s salons.

In lieu of these back-to-school events due to COVID-19, PREIT launched a “Park and Play” events series, which is a collection of outdoor events across PREIT’s properties, including drive-in movies, virtual concerts and seafood festivals.

The events are taking place now through mid-September and will feature several on-site dining partners and tenants that will enable consumers to visit the shops and restaurants while on the property during these curated pop-up events.

“This is one of many ways we’re working to support our local communities and the thousands of jobs within our malls,” Crowell notes.

Back-to-school season will look different for communities across the country, with some students back in the classrooms and others learning virtually, resulting in different shopping trends, Crowell points out.

“We’re seeing a shift in the types of products shoppers are seeking,” she notes. “While clothing is typically a hot purchase, this year consumers are shifting towards more technology and supplies. So, we’re exploring a series of initiatives to offer convenience, options and fun during this uncertain time.”

“Our primary objective is supporting our retailers, so we are using our digital channels to highlight retailers with these offerings and those that support health and wellness during this stressful time,” she adds.

How other malls operators are holding back-to-school events

This year, Washington Prime Group’s malls can choose to host a number of back-to-school events, according to a spokesperson for the Columbus, Ohio-based REIT. For example, malls are promoting “Tax-Free Weekend,” urging consumers to take advantage of the discount for their back-to-school shopping trip. Sixteen states offer sales tax-free weekends in August to shop for back-to-school supplies including clothes, books and electronics.

Additionally, with Washington Prime’s “Stuff the Bus” donation drives, shoppers are invited to provide school supplies at on-site donation centers at malls for students and teachers in local school districts. 

Washington Prime’s “Back-to-School Bash” will offer students and their families an afternoon of socially distant games, activities and live music to celebrate the beginning of the new school year, according to the spokesperson. For malls welcoming back local college students, “Back-to-Campus” is a shopping event with giveaways and contests just for college students.

“We know that for many families, the new academic year may look a little different,” the spokesperson said. “We want to ensure we offer our guests a chance to enjoy back-to-school traditions while taking important safety precautions.”

Washington Prime malls are providing activities that can be completed by individual families, rather than large groups. They’re continuing their already rigorous disinfectant process and asking guests to wear cloth face coverings in accordance with state and local guidelines.

“Depending on the locality, we are providing markers and signage to help guests keep an appropriate social distance, and in some cases, we are limiting the number of attendees at events.”

In addition to events, many Washington Prime malls are offering Retail To-Go, a curbside pick-up program.

It varies by market

When it comes to back-to-school, “every single city and state is different,” notes Greg Maloney, president and CEO of the Americas retail division with real estate services firm JLL, which operates more than 700 U.S. retail properties, including roughly 100 regional malls on behalf of their owners.

“I’m in Georgia and everybody is out and they’re shopping and their kids are going back to school for the most part,” Maloney says.

However, generally speaking, malls and stores aren’t as busy as they were pre-COVID-19, he notes. Maloney says many consumers are buying online and picking up in-store, doing curbside pick-up or having items delivered.

“Those sorts of things are very active in a lot of the places for what we would call the normal back-to-school stuff,” he says.

Malls’ back-to-school events are not like those held in previous years due to social distancing guidelines and restrictions for gathering in large numbers. However, Maloney says the malls that JLL works with are still getting people excited about the back-to-school shopping season with social media playing a big role.

“It’s similar to Christmas time when we have door busters and all those sorts of things,” he says. “We’re doing the same thing for back-to-school and we’ve done it before. It’s just we’ve ramped it up a bit more because of the fear that some people have about mingling around and going into stores.”

Are mall managers worried about making up for on-site back-to-school marketing events?

“Honestly, not as much as you would think,” Maloney says. “We’re just trying to get back to as normal as we possibly can,” which includes the back-to-school season and then Halloween and the holiday season, he says.

“But we’re planning for the rest of the year to be sort of status quo, and hopefully, as things improve we’ll be able to continue to roll out things as it feels comfortable,” he notes. “We’re all mindful of ‘let’s keep the social gatherings to a minimum unless things start to look a lot more favorable.’”

And Maloney remains optimistic about the outlook for shopper traffic.

“July was much better than June and we expect August to be much better,” Maloney says. “I think we’re going to see a lot more activity in August at our shopping centers and that includes the back-to-school shoppers.”

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