It’s probably not hyperbole to state that Fall 2021 will be the most unpredictable back-to-school season retailers have ever faced. As we lurch back to normal from a year of almost exclusive remote learning, most parents (and kids) are expecting to see students return to the classroom. But there is still some understandable hesitation to a full return back to school, and how that will play out in terms of retail trends remains in question. Will families look for traditional back-to-school tech, or plan for more homeschooling?
A recent survey of parents in Massachusetts, for example, found that almost 70 percent want their children to go back to in-person schooling this fall — while about 28 percent still want a hybrid or fully remote learning option. Either way, analysts and tech companies say some of the technologies adopted during the pandemic are here to stay.
“Of course, the laptop is the centerpiece of coursework,” notes Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research. So he believes that demand will remain high. Particularly popular for taking handwritten notes and scribbling diagrams and equations will likely be 2-in-1 Windows laptops and iPads with Magic Keyboards, which are light enough for a grade-schooler’s backpack and can last up to a full day on a single charge. Also likely to be popular this year are Chromebooks.
“Our Chromebook volume grew like a million percent” last year, said Jeff Witt, manager at Lenovo Communications, exaggerating to make a point. “A lot of school systems have standardized on Google, so it can be a requirement to use Chrome.”
The other trend that he expects to continue from the pandemic year is the one toward larger laptop screens. “The screens are tending to be larger because portability is not as big a concern,” said Witt. As for pricing, Lenovo sees the sweet spot for back-to-school models in the $800 to $1,000 price range.
Alternately, display maker Viewsonic sees an increase in portable or second-screen sales. A 15.6-inch screen that plugs into a USB-C port as a second screen and costs under $200 is a great way for students to expand their display space. It also enhances productivity when using reference materials, said Reticle Research’s Rubin.
Going For Wi-Fi 6
Another lesson of the difficult year during the global pandemic has been that connectivity is king. And students will be taking that lesson with them back to campus.
“Colleges usually have excellent Wi-Fi coverage, but look for a device that can support Wi-Fi 6 for the best coverage, as campuses upgrade their equipment,” said Rubin. More routers, such as Netgear’s $599.99 Nighthawk RAXE500 router and devices like Samsung’s S21 Ultra 5G (starting at $499.99) are jumping on the Wi-Fi 6e standard.
Going back to school may also encourage more 5G adoption. Verizon is pitching more fixed wireless solutions to customers, including 5G in cities and LTE in rural areas. “Peak times will be more normal” as people return to offices, said Steve Van Dinter, director of communications at Verizon, with peak usage in the evenings. He also thinks there will continue to be high demand for more bandwidth, following the pandemic. “They have a bigger appetite for using technology now,” Van Dinter said.
More, More, More
“We’re pretty confident we’re going to see high demand going back to school,” concurred Ray Hedrick, a product manager at Viewsonic. “So we’ve moved away from the hybrid messaging we did before.”
Indeed, the signs are increasingly pointing to a return to in-person classes. The largest school district in the country, New York City, has eliminated remote options for the coming school year. New Jersey’s governor said his state is going the same way: no remote learning this fall. Meanwhile, state boards of education such as the one in Illinois are voting for in-class lessons, as well. And all of them will have more money to spend this year.
While relief payments for families may have been expended, states will have a new infusion of cash. The Federal government is handing out a record $122 billion in additional COVID-19 school recovery money. Some states will doubtless put those funds toward additional technology.
Combine this with back-to-work corporate moves, and it will put additional pressure on demand for computers, peripherals, and displays. “The transition back to work means companies are changing out old hardware,” said Viewsonic’s Hedrick. Couple that with the continuing chip shortage, and you can expect some customer frustration. “It is still really hard to get products,” he added.
Indeed, the gating factor for many CE companies and retailers this back-to-school season may remain the global microprocessor and chip shortage. “Last year, we sold everything we could make,” noted Lenovo’s Witt. But he anticipates the next 12 months will be easier. “It will be better,” he said, “but specific displays or processors may still be in short supply.”