WFH’s Lasting Impact on the School & Office Supplies Category  9/17/2021

When one thinks of influencers and consumer products, they often picture a beauty expert touting the latest brands of cosmetics on Instagram or giving lessons on a skin care regimen via YouTube. But the pandemic also gave rise to a new breed of influencers, who provide tips and tricks to millions of remote workers and students on how to organize and decorate their workspaces, with suggestions of products that will help them accomplish this.

"There are many content creators who started teaching consumers how to maximize the physical and wall space of their remote offices," says Meghan Caldwell, Associate Category Merchant at Staples. "These influencers are helping drive the sales of organizational products for people working and learning from home and are giving them fashion-forward ideas to personalize their space, as well."

This is a prime example of how the pandemic has impacted the school and office category, as millions of consumers were forced to embrace the digital realm and quickly set up workspaces in kitchens, dining rooms, bedrooms or wherever any useable space was available. And even though the pandemic has eased up, many workers will remain remote or in a hybrid scenario, while schools are opening up with new safety regulations – and some quickly reverting back to remote when cases of COVID pop up (check out RangeMe's recent blog post, "How Your Back-to-School Supplies List May Look Different This Year.")

“We’re anticipating a little more of a normal start to how schools will reopen, but there is still a lot of uncertainty,” says Leen Nsouli, Executive Director and Industry Analyst for NPD, who gave a presentation on the industry’s outlook during the program (see video below).

“There is also quite a lot of activity happening around the work-from-home or hybrid workforce and what these consumers are buying," she added. "Office supplies are up 10 percent versus 2020, and up 5 percent versus 2019, so the category is still performing well overall.”

Staples' Meghan Caldwell with me on ECRM Connect

During the School & Office Program, I spoke with a dozen retail buyers about how the long tail of the pandemic has influenced how consumers are shopping the category, as well as the products they are purchasing.

Going high-tech
One major trend the new work-from-home environment has driven is the move for more tech-related purchases, and there has been a bit of overlap of the school and office and consumer technology categories. Aside from the products related to video meetings, such as webcams, ring lights, headsets and speakers, consumers are buying more electronic accessories, as well, leading many retailers to set up merchandising displays with earbuds, computer mice, cables and other electronics needed for school or work. 

“We’ve been seeing a lot more purchases of consumer technology, much of it related to remote working, says Geanee Moore, Product Manager - Office Supplies at FedEx Office and Print Centers. “Products such as of 3-in-one wireless chargers, lighting, and cables – particularly extended cables. We’re also seeing a surge in blue light blocking glasses for those people who are having virtual meetings on their computers all day.”

And while not specifically a tech gadget, most of the buyers I spoke with mentioned dry erase boards have become extremely popular among the work from home crowd. 

Geanee Moore of FedEx Office & Print Centers

Organization & storage
Arguably, the biggest trend due to the pandemic has been in organization and storage related to home offices and learning spaces, and this has gone through two distinct phases. At the onset of the pandemic, when offices were shuttered and we were forced to quarantine in our homes, consumers – especially those who never previously worked from home – made a mad dash for any products they could get to quickly create their makeshift workspaces.Desks, chairs, folders, pens and other school and office supplies were picked up in an effort to continue working and learning during this transition. As many thought it would be temporary, there was not too much emphasis in décor, design or productivity. They were just plugging holes.

Now however, as it looks like many companies are leaning toward fully remote or at least hybrid work-from-home scenarios, consumers are looking to create a more permanent home office. Some have moved to larger living spaces to accommodate a dedicated office, while others are looking to create a more comfortable, productive – and pleasing – environment in their existing work space.

“Even as we start returning to our offices, we still have a higher penetration of that home office hybrid workforce and flexible work environment with that space," says NPD's Nsouli. "Those workers will still continue to go to stores and shop online to get the items they need."

This has resulted in fragmented sales says Nsouli. When people work at the office, they primarily rely on office supplies that are purchased by their companies. Working at home, it's the consumer who is now making those purchases, even if they might be expensed to their companies. Those retailers who cater to these business customers may need to shift their marketing and promotions to the individual employees moving forward, perhaps in the form of employee discounts.

In addition to efficiency and productivity, those working from home long-term are also looking to personalize their space with supplies that fit their sense of style and comfort. This includes items like customized furniture and desks, uniquely designed and colored supplies, inspirational items and other products that blend into the office decor or are aesthetically pleasing.

Wellness plays a role, too. One of ECRM’s Buyers Choice Award winners for the program, ablue Co, Ltd., based in Gyeonggi-do, South Korea, researches and manufactures products developed to help consumers achieve proper posture. It’s top-selling Curble Chair was introduced to the Korean market in early 2019 and since has sold 8 million units, and exports to more than 30 overseas countries.

As kids start heading back to school and mixing with others, parents are looking towards personalization with an eye toward safety – no more sharing of pencils, pens and other supplies; it's truly every child for themselves in terms of their school supplies. And there is no better way to identify what is yours then by having supplies that are truly unique in their appearance. Besides, having your own stylish school supplies is cool, as many back to school TV commercials point out.

Rosemarie Gomez of 99 Cents Only Stores

"We are seeing a lot more fashion making its way into the back-to-school assortment," says Rosemarie Gomez, Buyer - Stationery, 99 Cents Only Stores. "People want what's unique, what stands out. Licensed products are big. Sustainable products are also increasing in popularity, such as products with a corked look or wood finish."

Indeed, the first place buyers Choice Award winner from the program creates just such products, which are both fashion-forward and eco-friendly. Michael Roger Inc. produces eco-friendly stationery products, including the Decomposition Book series and, more recently, the Jalapeno Paper Co. series, which includes a Rocket Ship book that features an outer space scene with pages made from 50 percent post-consumer-waste recycled paper.

Crafts still going strong
One additional remnant of the remote work culture that has remained strong is consumers’ interest in crafts of all kinds, whether to keep occupied with some of the additional time at home or to assuage the feelings of anxiety brought about by still-uncertain times. Some of the crafts that became popular during the height of the pandemic have become regular hobbies consumers will continue long after things are back to normal – whatever version of normal we end up with, that is.

"The craft industry is still going strong," says 99 Cents Only Stores’ Gomez. "The pandemic seems to have awakened peoples past hobbies, and they are finding crafts to be an anxiety release. Thinks like painting, 'coloring, and sketching can be very therapeutic for people."

Moving forward
With kids back in school, we’ll definitely see a comeback with traditional school supplies, but there is no doubt that there will be lasting impacts caused by the pandemic in how, where and when people purchase school and office supplies, as well as what they are buying. Will another COVID variant close schools again? Will people continue working from home? Will the use pens and paper eventually disappear, to be replaced by fully-digital products? 

If there is one thing we learned this year, it’s to be prepared for any of these scenarios, and have the ability to successfully pivot as needed.

Below is the full presentation by NPD’s Leen Nsouli from ECRM’s School & Office Program.



Joseph Tarnowski

VP Content

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