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COVID-19 Charts Uncertain Course for Back-to-School, Back-to-College Season

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COVID-19 has elevated parent’s anxieties around health and finance, and led them to question the quality of education that students received this spring. Concerns that students have fallen behind is evident, with only one-half of K-12 parents satisfied with the education provided, and 25% citing that their children are not prepared for the next grade. This trend is similar to what we found in the Back-to-College survey, as just more than half (52%) of parents noted they were satisfied with the education college students received this spring, and many now contemplating the value of online learning at the price of an on-campus experience. Moreover, 66% of K-12 parents and 62% of college-age parents are anxious about sending their kids back-to-school because of the pandemic. This is further compounded by financial concerns, with 40% of parents worried about making upcoming college-related payments.

Given this year marks a season of uncertainty, it will likely shift the way consumers approach back-to-school and back-to-college shopping — especially around what and how they will purchase.

Back-to-school spending shifts to technology
Back-to-school spending is expected to reach $28.1 billion, averaging $529 per student in households buying clothing, supplies, computers and electronics for children in grades K to 12. While spending is relatively flat from 2019, there is increased emphasis on technology-based learning tools, including resources to supplement the standard K-12 program.

  • Spending on technology products (including personal computers, smartphones, tablets, wearables) is set to increase 28% over 2019. Consumers planning to purchase these items intend to spend an average of $488 on them.
  • Despite spending on clothing, accessories and traditional school supplies dropping by 17%, it remains the largest portion of back-to-school spending, with K-12 parents planning on spending, on average, $336 on these categories.
  • More than half (51%) of parents plan to increase their spend on virtual learning tools. In fact, 40% of parents plan to subscribe their children to a supplementary e-learning platform.
  • Parents also plan to allocate budget for personal health products, spending an average of $46 per student on supplies like sanitizer and wipes.
  • Children have an even greater influence over purchasing decisions with 69% exerting a moderate-to-high influence over computer and hardware purchases this year, up from 54% last year.


Health and safety concerns drive consumers to move shopping activity online
With health concerns rising, more back-to-school purchases will occur online (37%, up from 29% in 2019), gaining share from in-store purchases (43%). These are more likely to involve a personal computer due to greater at-home computer use as compared to smartphones, which were a driver of shopping activity last year. At the same time, 20% of respondents remain undecided on the format for spending, which presents a $5.5 billion untapped opportunity for retailers this season.

  • Consumers plan to spend $10.4 billion online this back-to-school season, up from $8.1 billion last year.
  • The use of personal computers for back-to-school shopping is rising to almost two-thirds of back-to-school shoppers (64%) saying they will use a personal computer for shopping versus 46% who will use a smartphone.
  • Further, emerging shopping technologies such as voice assistants and cashier-less stores are starting to gain some traction with 6%-15% of back-to-school shoppers planning to use at least one format.
  • Despite in-store spending projected to decline from $15.7 billion last year to $12.2 billion this year, the physical store remains critical with 43% of total spending projected to take place in-store. In fact, as consumers shift to contactless formats, 26% of shoppers plan to use BOPIS more frequently.
  • As with years past, mass merchants are the preferred shopping location, for back-to-school (81%) shopping, but they may lose some share this year as more people expect to shop closer to home because of the pandemic.
  • When selecting where to shop, price (82%) and convenience (80%) remain the most important criteria for back-to-school shoppers, but safety (59%) is an important consideration for parents this year.
  • Despite the uncertainty on when and how schools will open, about 40% of respondents intend to start their school shopping four to six weeks before school begins, with late July and early August being the busiest — accounting for $16.2 billion in seasonal spending.

 
Back-to-college parents weigh difficult decisions
College families are faced with uncertainty as they weigh the value of education that students are receiving during the COVID-19 era, especially as many colleges and universities are still determining how school will reopen in the fall. Faced with concerns over their family’s health, finances and the unknowns of campus life, parents of college-age children still plan to maintain spending in anticipation of a return to campus, and will spend $25.4 billion, or approximately $1,345 per student.

  • Twenty-eight percent of parents may shift plans and have their students join online only institutions this fall; 29% may look to change plans and have their child live at home.
  • Lower income families have additional stresses, as 50% are concerned with making upcoming payments, compared with 30% of families overall.
  • As consumers seek out safe shopping formats, parents expect to spend more of their back-to-college budget online — 34% in 2020 versus 28% last year.
  • Both price (85%) and convenience (85%) remain the main drivers for purchase decisions, although price sensitivity is decreasing (down from 91% in 2019) as shoppers pay more during the pandemic for brands they trust.
  • Mass merchant stores remain dominant, with 75% of shoppers citing plans to shop for their price, product and convenience, and COVID-19 safety precautions.


College students across the country are ready to return to campus, but continued health, safety and financial concerns are weighing on families. As such, parents plan to give their children as normal a college experience as possible with consistent spending for electronics, household products, clothing and traditional supplies. As parents adapt to the new realities of the pandemic, online shopping is poised to make up a greater percentage of back-to-college purchases, with convenience and safety being more important components of this year’s shopping experience.

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Post-COVID-19, regaining citizen’s trust should be a priority for governments

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coronavirus people

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated governments’ ability to respond to a major global crisis with extraordinary flexibility, innovation and determination. However, emerging evidence suggests that much more could have been done in advance to bolster resilience and many actions may have undermined trust and transparency between governments and their citizens, according to a new OECD report.

Government at a Glance 2021 says that one of the biggest lessons of the pandemic is that governments will need to respond to future crises at speed and scale while safeguarding trust and transparency. “Looking forward, we must focus simultaneously on promoting the economic recovery and avoiding democratic decline” said OECD Director of Public Governance Elsa Pilichowski. “Reinforcing democracy should be one of our highest priorities.”

 Countries have introduced thousands of emergency regulations, often on a fast track. Some alleviation of standards is inevitable in an emergency, but must be limited in scope and time to avoid damaging citizen perceptions of the competence, openness, transparency, and fairness of government.

 Governments should step up their efforts in three areas to boost trust and transparency and reinforce democracy:

 Tackling misinformation is key. Even with a boost in trust in government sparked by the pandemic in 2020, on average only 51% of people in OECD countries for which data is available trusted their government. There is a risk that some people and groups may be dissociating themselves from traditional democratic processes.

 It is crucial to enhance representation and participation in a fair and transparent manner. Governments must seek to promote inclusion and diversity, support the representation of young people, women and other under-represented groups in public life and policy consultation. Fine-tuning consultation and engagement practices could improve transparency and trust in public institutions, says the report. Governments must also level the playing field in lobbying. Less than half of countries have transparency requirements covering most of the actors that regularly engage in lobbying.

 Strengthening governance must be prioritised to tackle global challenges while harnessing the potential of new technologies. In 2018, only half of OECD countries had a specific government institution tasked with identifying novel, unforeseen or complex crises. To be fit for the future, and secure the foundations of democracy, governments must be ready to act at speed and scale while safeguarding trust and transparency.

 Governments must also learn to spend better, according to Government at a Glance 2021. OECD countries are providing large amounts of support to citizens and businesses during this crisis: measures ongoing or announced as of March 2021 represented, roughly, 16.4% of GDP in additional spending or foregone revenues, and up to 10.5% of GDP via other means. Governments will need to review public spending to increase efficiency, ensure that spending priorities match people’s needs, and improve the quality of public services.

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Sweden: Invest in skills and the digital economy to bolster the recovery from COVID-19

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Sweden’s economy is on the road to recovery from the shock of the COVID-19 crisis, yet risks remain. Moving ahead with a labour reform to facilitate adaptation in a fast-changing economic environment, and investing in digital skills and infrastructure, will be crucial to revive employment and build a sustainable recovery, according to the latest OECD Economic Survey of Sweden.

The pandemic triggered a severe recession in Sweden, despite mild distancing measures and swift government action to protect people and businesses. GDP fell by less than in many other European economies in 2020, thanks to reinforced short-time work, compensation to firms for lost revenue and measures to prop up the financial system, but unemployment still rose sharply. Solid public finances provided room for further stimulus in 2021 to buttress the recovery.

 The Survey recommends maintaining targeted support to people and firms until the pandemic subsides, then focusing on strengthening vocational training and skills and increasing investment in areas like high-speed internet and low-carbon transport. Addressing regional inequality, which is low but rising, should also be a priority as the recovery takes hold.

 The Survey shows that Sweden has been among the most resilient OECD countries in the face of a historic shock. Yet, like other economies, it faces challenges from demographic changes and the shift to green, digital economies. Investments in education and training, and labour reforms along the lines negotiated by the social partners, will support job creation and strengthen economic resilience. Building on Sweden’s leadership in digital innovation and diffusion will also be key for driving productivity.

 After a 3% contraction in 2020, interrupting several years of growth, the Survey projects a rebound in activity with 3.9% growth in 2021 and 3.4% in 2022 as industrial production resumes and exports recover. The recovery in world trade is bolstering the Swedish economy, however the country remains vulnerable to potential disruptions in global value chains.  

The pandemic has aggravated a mismatch in Sweden’s job market, with unfilled vacancies for highly qualified workers coinciding with high unemployment for low-skilled workers and immigrants. The public employment service needs strengthening to provide better support to jobseekers, including immigrants and women, and labour policies should strike the right balance between supporting businesses and workers and supporting transitions away from declining businesses towards growing sectors.

A rising share of youths and older people in the population, especially in remote areas, is affecting the finances of local governments, which provide the bulk of welfare services. Strengthening local government budgets and ensuring equal welfare provision across the country will require providing tax income to poorer regions more efficiently and raising the economic growth potential across regions through investments in innovation. Improving coordination between government entities and reinforcing the role of universities in local economic networks would help achieve that aim.

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Fewer women than men will regain work during COVID-19 recovery

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Generations of progress stands to be lost on women and girls' empowerment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: ILO

Fewer women will regain jobs lost to the COVID-19 pandemic during the recovery period, than men, according to a new study released on Monday by the UN’s labour agency.  

In Building Forward Fairer: Women’s rights to work and at work at the core of the COVID-19 recovery, the International Labour Organization (ILO) highlights that between 2019 and 2020, women’s employment declined by 4.2 per cent globally, representing 54 million jobs, while men suffered a three per cent decline, or 60 million jobs. 

This means that there will be 13 million fewer women in employment this year compared to 2019, but the number of men in work will likely recover to levels seen two years ago. 

This means that only 43 per cent of the world’s working-age women will be employed in 2021, compared to 69 per cent of their male counterparts. 

The ILO paper suggests that women have seen disproportionate job and income losses because they are over-represented in the sectors hit hardest by lockdowns, such as accommodation, food services and manufacturing. 

Regional differences 

Not all regions have been affected in the same way. For example, the study revealed that women’s employment was hit hardest in the Americas, falling by more than nine per cent.  

This was followed by the Arab States at just over four per cent, then Asia-Pacific at 3.8 per cent, Europe at 2.5 per cent and Central Asia at 1.9 per cent. 

In Africa, men’s employment dropped by just 0.1 per cent between 2019 and 2020, while women’s employment decreased by 1.9 per cent. 

Mitigation efforts 

Throughout the pandemic, women faired considerably better in countries that took measures to prevent them from losing their jobs and allowed them to get back into the workforce as early as possible. 

In Chile and Colombia, for example, wage subsidies were applied to new hires, with higher subsidy rates for women.  

And Colombia and Senegal were among those nations which created or strengthened support for women entrepreneurs.  

Meanwhile, in Mexico and Kenya quotas were established to guarantee that women benefited from public employment programmes. 

Building forward 

To address these imbalances, gender-responsive strategies must be at the core of recovery efforts, says the agency. 

It is essential to invest in the care economy because the health, social work and education sectors are important job generators, especially for women, according to ILO. 

Moreover, care leave policies and flexible working arrangements can also encourage a more even division of work at home between women and men. 

The current gender gap can also be tackled by working towards universal access to comprehensive, adequate and sustainable social protection. 

Promoting equal pay for work of equal value is also a potentially decisive and important step. 

Domestic violence and work-related gender-based violence and harassment has worsened during the pandemic – further undermining women’s ability to be in the workforce – and the report highlights the need to eliminate the scourge immediately. 

Promoting women’s participation in decision-making bodies, and more effective social dialogue, would also make a major difference, said ILO. 

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