Canadians to Spend Less Back-to-School Shopping in 2020: Survey

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Canadians will be doing less back-to-school shopping this year than they did a year ago during the traditional period of time each season for this retail sector, according to a survey released this week by the Retail Council of Canada.

But because of the uncertainty regarding remote and in-class learning much of the spending patterns has shifted because consumer behaviour has changed in many cases from what it has been like in the past due to the current circumstances.


The Back-to-School Shopping Survey, conducted by Leger between August 7 to 9, found that the average anticipated spend on back-to-school items this year is $727 versus $919 in 2019. Apparel and sporting goods show the largest decrease in spending across all regions except for Quebec, where consumers are purchasing more school supplies and sporting goods than other regions of the country, it said.

The survey found 41 percent of Canadians shopped for back-to-school in 2019 versus 37 percent anticipating to shop this year.

“The results of this year’s back-to-school spending survey are not surprising,” said Diane J. Brisebois, President and CEO, Retail Council of Canada. “With many regions of the country still struggling with in-person back-to-school guidelines, many parents and students are still unsure of what back-to-school will look like in the fall.

“We anticipate ‘back-to-school’ spending this year will continue to be more spread out throughout the year and follow Canadians’ confidence levels in a return to the ‘new-normal’ that COVID-19 is forcing us all to accommodate.

“The numbers in August are a snapshot in time and they are in fact indicative of the unusual times we live in and the uncertainty around in-class, or in-person, back-to-school and the fact that many students of all ages have been purchasing supplies so that they can continue their classes at home.”

With remote learning introduced in most parts of the country throughout the pandemic (as early as April 2020), many of the purchases that would have been made during the traditional back-to-school shopping period were made earlier in the year. This pattern is especially evident in categories such as furniture, electronics, school supplies, books, and related items, said the report.

“It’s important to note that this survey was done in August and it was about people who had purchased in August and people who were intending to purchase or not. That’s important to note,” said Brisebois.

“What this is saying is that there’s still uncertainty around in-class back-to-school in a lot of regions of the country. In some regions they’ve been specific about the dates, in other regions it’s been a bit of a moving target. That has created uncertainty from a consumer perspective. So some consumers have been holding back until they feel there is in fact certainty.

“The second point that’s important is we have seen consumers purchasing back-to-school related products as of April of this year which is a lot earlier than any other year obviously because the back to school is always July and August. And those who were doing it early it’s usually July with the bulk in August. But because in most provinces the schools were closed as of April 1 and it was at home learning many of the parents and many of the students purchased goods to be able to accommodate that new lifestyle as of April. That also explained the increase in electronic sales, in furniture sales, especially, desks and accessories. In fact, it’s difficult to say if in total less was purchased. We think in fact that by the end of the year those numbers will be greater than they were in 2019 in aggregate. But they have been tracking over a longer period of time.”

Brisebois said consumers are purchasing more when it comes to health-related products. The survey found that consumers will be spending on average $49 in this category this year compared with $28 last year. Of course, that will include things like hand sanitizers and face coverings.

“That continues to be front and centre for all consumers,” she said.


The survey found that the majority of Canadians say health and safety protocols are having more of an influence on their decisions on where to purchase back-to-school items this year and back-to-school shoppers are buying more items online this year versus last year.

The percentage of shoppers who had or were planning to spend on apparel/footwear for back-to-school dropped from 78 percent in 2019 to 69 percent in 2020. About half of Canadians say that they have been influenced by free shipping and the ability to buy online and/or pick-up in-store which explains the continued growth of e-commerce, added the report.

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After the traditional back-to-school period is over — and that may last longer than normal this year because of COVID uncertainty in how education will be delivered — the next big event for retailers will be Halloween. And many experts have predicted that COVID will have a profound impact on this annual spending extravaganza as many children will not be trick or treating this year.

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior News Editor with Retail Insider in addition to working as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training. Mario was named as a RETHINK Retail Top Retail Expert in 2024.

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