Paced by expected strong demand for apparel and accessories, the 2021 back-to-school shopping season will rise a heady 16 percent over last year’s clunker, according to research and consulting firm Customer Growth Partners.

That tabulates to a record $780 billion in sales, for the July-to-September b-t-s season, Customer Growth Partners forecast Wednesday.

“After almost a year of hunkering down, consumers are back in the stores in numbers we haven’t seen since 2019 — if then,” CGP’s president Craig Johnson said in a statement. “With b-t-s shopping about to kick off, consumers are flush with cash from a year of record savings, rising wages — and government stimulus — and are ready to unleash a full year of pent-up demand.”

Johnson said his firm utilizes a “big data” retail platform and field research covering more than 100 shopping venues to track retail spending. CGP’s back-to-school forecast spans all retail sales except autos, gasoline, restaurants, food and beverage and home improvement, based on Department of Commerce census retail categories.

“On a two-year basis,” Johnson said, “the retail recovery is even more surprising, with back-to-school spending up 25 percent from 2019’s $624 billion pace, itself a record at the time. We’ve never seen retail back-to-school growth this vigorous this century, and perhaps not since the post-war period of the early 1950s. Still, this year’s exceptional back-to-school growth may be the ‘high water’ mark of the recovery, as consumer demand rotates back to services from goods, as the hospitality, travel and entertainment sectors recapture share-of-wallet from retailers.”

A back-to-school scene from July 2019.

The upcoming back-to-school season should be a barn burner for retailers.  Courtesy Image

For the full year, CGP initially forecast 8.1 percent retail sales growth for 2021, but subsequently upped the forecast to 11.9 percent.

CGP did temper its bullishness, indicating that year-over-year growth will ease this fall, as comparisons become more challenging and as services spending recover. “Labor shortages, supply chain bottlenecks and consumer resistance to rising prices may also pressure sales for the second half of 2021,” Johnson said. “But the greatest uncertainty may be a return of COVID-19, perhaps as a variant, which may dampen consumer spirits just as Holiday spending beckons.”

CGP also predicted that:

  • For the first time in decades, apparel and accessories sales will outpace other merchandise sectors, with “stunning 46 percent growth from 2020’s abysmal sales.” 
  • Sporting goods, toy and hobby retailers will rise 21 percent as millions of once hunkered-down households return to normal recreation patters.
  • The COVID-19-induced focus on the home is easing, as consumers turn to the outdoors, travel and other recreational pursuits — though home furnishings will still rise 16 percent.
  • Marking a key milestone, e-commerce growth will no longer exceed all merchandise sectors, but still will increase by more than 12 percent. Online b-t-s sales will top $237 billion.
  • Department stores will see their best b-t-s growth in years, up 12 percent, though total sales still lag past years. “The past year has provided a unique window into the resilience of the American consumer, the resourcefulness of American retailers — and the underlying strength of the American economy at large,” Johnson said.