Back-to-School, Back to Packed Lunches


    By NCS Marketing

    With more than 56 million school children and 19 million college students heading into the classroom according to the National Center for Education Statistics, consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands are curious to see what the season will look like. How might parents and students pack their backpacks and lunchboxes with the pandemic in mind?

    One aspect is clear: This year will continue to look different. Even without the Delta variant complicating back-to-school plans, the pandemic has already changed school buildings and campuses. Many schools are requiring masks for students, faculty and staff. Parents may choose to send their children to school with extra hygiene supplies. And unlike last spring, many schools plan to keep students on campus for lunch.

    All of these changes have implications for CPG. For instance, what new items might parents pick up at the grocery store? How will they pack the lunch box with health and safety a top concern?

    We looked back at NCS consumer purchase data from 2020 to understand what parents and students might buy in 2021. Here’s what we learned:

    Breakfast at the kitchen table: With children and parents both at home, household sales of breakfast items experienced some of the largest year-over-year jumps among all 2020 back-to-school categories. Spending on shelf-stable convenient breakfasts had the largest increase, up 254% over the same period in 2019. Many parents turned to prepared and instant foods to simplify mornings, leading to higher sales of refrigerated breakfasts (+46%), frozen toaster pastries (+38%) and instant breakfasts (+11%). 

    Our assessment: For now, breakfast will stay at the kitchen table, but not only for convenience. Schools and parents may both want to minimize the risk of gathering (mostly) unvaccinated children in large cafeterias.

    Convenient breakfast purchases increased in back-to-school 2020

    Pens, paper and pocket folders: It’s no surprise to know sales for the traditional back-to-school supplies you’d find at the big box, grocery or drugstore were down in 2020, compared to 2019. Though there was still a seasonal back-to-school bump, household spending on back-to-school writing instruments fell 19% year-over-year, as did school and office supplies. Now it’s more than a year later, and everyone’s supplies are lower. Plus, who doesn’t want to start the school year fresh?  A new notebook brings so many possibilities for the new school year. 

    Our assessment: Household sales on writing instruments and other school supplies will gain traction for the 2021 season.

    A return to the traditional lunchbox: Some of the most popular food items for lunchboxes in 2019 included lunch combinations, chocolate milk boxes, refrigerated wraps, wholesome snacks and shelf-stable fruit. In 2020, household sales of these items fell along with packed lunches: For instance, U.S. consumers spent less on items such as chocolate milk boxes (down 57%), lunch combinations (down 15%) and wholesome snacks like granola bars (down 8%). Spending on refrigerated wraps, however, moved in the opposite direction and in a big way—up 350%—as well as produce snacks, up 127%, facilitating grab-and-go lunches from the fridge.

    Our assessment: With more lunches being packed, expect sales of lunchbox items to increase as concerns over health and safety spur more schoolchildren to bring a complete lunch to school.

    Health first: Hand sanitizer and tissues traditionally have been a staple in the back-to-school shopping cart. In 2020, household spending on hand sanitizer jumped 743% in the weeks before school. Though many families may be well-supplied in their home or cars, classrooms and cubbies will need to be stocked.

    Our assessment: Parents will focus more on keeping kids healthy than in previous years and make sure each child has their own supplies of tissues and sanitizer.

    The 2020 Back-to-School Lunchbox Looked Different

    With back-to-school spending underway, it’s not too late to meet consumers where they are and help them have a happy and healthy back-to-school season.

    Who needs a snack? Our latest case study is about how a snack food brand used in-flight optimization to pivot the direction of their advertising campaign and achieve a 19% incremental sales lift.


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