It's the second busiest shopping season behind Christmas, but this year’s back-to-school shopping is unlike any retailers have ever seen.
As millions of parents - like Madeline Elfenbein- struggle to prepare for an uncertain school year. Elfenbein's 3 ½-year-old daughter Mona is headed to Pre-K in the fall but they have no idea how much will be in-person learning or school huddled around the kitchen table.
“We haven't gone shopping for new clothes, for new school supplies, new backpacks or anything like that. We've just been, honestly, we've been in a holding pattern and we've just been waiting. And it occurs to me, I haven't seen any signs that say back to school. That's funny. We haven't seen anything like that."
The uncertainty means parents are spending a lot less than they did at this point last year, putting a drag on retailers. Big U.S. store chains, such as Walmart, Kohl's and Target, are already feeling the pain. All three reported that the back-to-school season has been "choppy" or "slow."
But a slow season, doesn't mean a no shopping season, says retail analyst Mary Epner.
"Number one, it's comfort wear. You see here how we have these great-looking bright colors in pants, and sweats, and so on, and that's really taking the place of a lot of denim that has been purchased in prior years. The consumer, the student, both high school and college, are staying home and they're doing Zoom calls, so they don't want that denim. They want things that look like this, that are fashionable yet comfortable."
And speaking of Zoom calls - students and parents are spending big on technology - so what's lost in sales at apparel chains is going to be more than made up by gains for tech retailers like Apple and Best Buy.
When it's all said and done, consumers are expected to have shelled out a record $101 billion this back-to-school season with computers and other tech accessories pushing up that total bill.
As for how much Elfenbein will spend on supplies for Mona...well that's still up in the air.
"And Mona is signed up to go back physically when... when schools reopen. But we're not going to send her if the teachers are unhappy with that. So, we'll... we'll wait. We'll switch to remote, and we'll... we'll wait until everyone feels safe."