Kids’ stationery booms during pandemic

By Jennifer Alsever for Marker

Christy Warner, a communications manager in Minneapolis, searched for months for a desk that fit her teenage daughter’s room and was priced less than $200. “I looked on Ikea, Wayfair, Overstocked, Target, TJ Maxx, everywhere, and everything is sold out,” she says.

Last spring, her daughter, a high school senior, converted the dining room table into a working desk during lockdown. Today, she’s upgraded to a folding table in her bedroom. “I just couldn’t find something,” says Warner. “It’s just like the toilet paper shortage.”

Covid-19 has created a whiplash cycle of unexpected product surges and shortages, from bicycles and pools, to flour and outdoor heaters. The latest unexpected pandemic rush: children’s office supplies. Call it the most expensive back-to-school year yet. As schools continue toggling between remote and hybrid learning, parents have been throttled into spending hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars to set up makeshift home classrooms for their children — from first-graders to marooned college students.

Some companies are cashing in on the boom by launching new products to cater to what’s essentially a new breed of kid’s home office.

Forget backpacks and lunchboxes — according to Wayfair, sales of student desks are up 129%; meanwhile sales of Chromebooks, a popular no-frills laptop for students, have surged in the past few months.

“It’s a totally different set of things that are needed for back to school,” says Ben Arnold, a consumer technology analyst at research firm NPD. For instance, sales of notebook computers jumped 46% between July and August, compared to the same time during 2019, according to NPD. There was a similar lift in sales of USB webcams (174%), PC headsets (109%), monitors (78%), computer mice, (70%) routers (60%), and keyboards (40%). Parents are also snapping up more specialised gadgets to modify their setups, including green screens and ring lights — which improve lighting for Zooming into school, says Arnold.

Headphones have also been selling out. In Carlsbad, California, back-to-school sales at JLab Audio, an online audio retailer, have doubled, driven by parents snapping up $29 kids’ Bluetooth headphones that offer a smaller fit for either distance learning or “keeping kids occupied during lockdown,” says JLab CEO Win Cramer.

Another unexpected back-to-school hit: children’s blue light glasses, designed to protect little eyes from prolonged exposure to the harsh glow of computer screens and electronics.

Some companies are cashing in on the boom by launching new products to cater to what’s essentially a new breed of kid’s home office. Annex, an on-demand service that outfits home offices for employees, has been bombarded with inquiries from parents who want to set up workspaces for their children — so many that Annex has a kid’s cubicle in product development, says Rob Wu, a spokesman for the company.

Meanwhile, McSquares, a Colorado-based office supply startup that recently raised funding on Shark Tank, has begun offering $50 “distance learning packages” which include erasable markers, a desktop whiteboard that can replace scratch paper, and a six-pack of erasable sticky notes, which let students jot down their thoughts and rearrange them on the wall.

“There are great things we shouldn’t be doing in front of a screen, and one of them is thinking visually,” says McSquares’s founder and CEO Anthony Franco, who has seen quarterly sales top $1 million, up 500% over the last year, thanks in part to demand for Covid home offices.

Even companies that typically sell to school districts are suddenly finding themselves in the mass consumer game. Cincinnati-based School Outfitters, which sells school furniture and supplies to districts, has been selling parents bouncy and wobble chairs that let kids move around while sitting, along with kid-size standing desks. The pandemic hurt the company’s sales in March and April, says CEO Tom Brennan, but it has since bounced back with a new revenue stream — “regular parents.” Adds Brennan: “It’s not really our market, but we’re happy to help them.”

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