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Licensed Back-to-School Sales Expected to Rise 2.0% in 2020

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Licensed back-to-school sales are expected to climb to $9.6 billion in the U.S. and Canada, according to The Licensing Letter’s estimates. With licensed retail sales up 2.0%, or $188 million, the back-to-school season is expected to help bolster recovery following a difficult second quarter of 2020 and lackluster -0.9% growth in 2019.

The impact of the back-to-school season on total U.S. and Canada sales is not as concentrated or as strong as it has been in years past, an ongoing trend that has affected most North American shopping holidays. In 2019, back-to-school merchandise made up 8.2% share of all licensed retail sales in the U.S. and Canada. A decade ago, that share would have been closer to one-tenths.

Total combined back-to-school spending for K-12 and college students is expected to hit $101.6 billion in 2020, with retail sales up a whopping 25.9% (or $20.9 billion) from the previous year, according to the National Retail Federation. Per the NRF’s survey, 55% of families expect students will take at least some of their classes at home this fall, with only 26% expecting most or all classes will be taught in-person. Of those learning from home, 72% will need to buy items like computers and home furnishings. All in all, 36% of students expect to buy laptops, 22% computer speakers/headphones, 21% other accessories such as a mouse or flash drive, and 17% printers. Another 17% plan to buy non-computer items including calculators, furniture like a desk or chair, and workbooks.

Retail Sales of Licensed Back-to-school Goods, U.S. & Canada, 2019–2020
Notes: *Licensed retail sales figures for 2020 are preliminary estimates. Numbers may not add up exactly due to rounding.
(Figures in Millions)
Product Category Retail Sales, 2020* Retail Sales, 2019 Change, 2019–2020 Share, 2020
Apparel $2,099 $2,079 1.0% 21.9%
Accessories $1,479 $1,463 1.1% 15.5%
Footwear $736 $731 0.7% 7.7%
Consumer Electronics $719 $648 11.0% 7.5%
Stationery $483 $473 2.3% 5.1%
Publishing $368 $353 4.5% 3.9%
Gifts/Novelties $250 $247 1.0% 2.6%
Other $3,435 $3,390 1.3% 35.9%
Total $9,570 $9,382 2.0% 100.0%

Licensed apparel, accessories, and footwear make up nearly half of back-to-school sales, with an expected 45.1% share of sales in 2020. That expected share is down 0.4 percentage points from 2019, and down 0.6 percentage points from 2018. In large part, this trend is attributable to families spacing out their clothing purchases over the year rather than concentrating on one distinct season to focus the majority of their purchases.

Apparel is expected to climb 1.0% in 2020, after dipping -1.8% in 2019, for a total of $2.1 billion in licensed retail sales. The largest product category among back-to-school goods, apparel made up 22.2% share of licensed sales in 2019. Looking at it from another angle, roughly 9.1% share of all licensed apparel sales are attributable to back-to-school.

Accessories sales are expected to climb 1.1% in 2020 after a -1.2% drop in 2019. With almost $1.5 billion in licensed retail sales in 202, the product category takes up 15.5% share of sales. Only 8.8% of all accessories sales were attributable to back-to-school in 2019, one of the lowest shares among the major product categories TLL tracks for the segment. In addition to bags and luggage, popular sub-categories include eyewear and hosiery.

Licensed footwear sales, on the other hand, are much more concentrated around back-to-school; in 2019, 12.5% of category sales were connected to back-to-school. In 2020, sales are expected to lift 0.7% to reach $736 million after flat 0.2% performance in 2019.

Consumer electronics boast the highest expected growth rate in 2020, with licensed sales expected to climb 11.0% to hit $719 million in sales. The product category also is expected to have the highest dollar growth in 2020, with sales expected to climb by $71 million—or roughly three-eights of total dollar growth. Eleven percent of total category sales were linked to back-to-school shopping in 2019. Electronic accessories and cases make up a much larger share of licensed sales as compared to general category sales.

Stationery sales are expected to climb 2.3% in 2020, after a 1.5% boost in 2019, to reach $483 million in retail sales. One-fifths of total category sales, or 19.7%, were connected with back-to-school in 2019, making it the most dependent category TLL tracks.

Publishing products are set to jump 4.5% in licensed retail sales, after 2.2% growth in 2019, to reach $386 billion in sales. As with footwear, back-to-school comprised 8.8% share of total category sales for the year in 2019. Unlike footwear, families are stocking up on reading material for both educational and entertainment purposes.

Gifts and novelties sales are expected to rise 1.0% in 2020 to reach $250 million following disappointing -2.0% performance in 2019. Just 9.0% of total category sales were attributable to back-to-school in 2019.

All other product categories are expected to rise an overall 1.3% in 2020. Of particular note for 2020, sales of video game/software and toys/games are expected to be strong.

Although furniture and home furnishings sales are expected to go up for K-12 students, the majority of sales in the product category have traditionally gone to college students moving into or returning to dormitories. This year those sales, like the students themselves, have nowhere to go.


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