“It’s going to be a difficult back-to-school season,” Saunders said. “It’s retailers’ first big test. I don’t think the outcome is going to be good at all.”
Another factor depressing sales: Amazon’s Prime Day, which for five years was in mid-July, has been postponed until the fall. Marshal Cohen, chief industry adviser of market research firm The NPD Group, said that the shopping event helped jump-start back-to-school sales.
John Fleming, interim CEO at Warrendale, Pennsylvania-based Rue21, says sales now look like a “COVID map.” Stores in states that have experienced surges in new coronavirus cases report sales declines, while the Northeast, where infections have flattened or declined, has seen sales increases.
As more schools shift to virtual lesson plans, retailers are pivoting too. Walmart Inc. has developed designated areas for teachers and virtual learning tools on its website. The discounter’s Sam’s Club division is offering webcams and more headphones and adding lap desks for kids learning at home. Best Buy, the nation’s largest consumer electronics chain, is adding new services, including a tool called Parent Hub, which provides tips and resources to parents to help with distance learning.
J.C. Penney, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May, is marketing room decor aimed at students who aren’t decorating dorm rooms but can decorate their bedrooms instead. Kohl’s, whose message on its website reads, “Heading back, or logging in,” is promoting educational toys and desk accessories as part of its back-to-school campaign.