Back-to-school is one of the biggest milestones in the retail calendar and 2021 is forecast to be bigger than ever. How do back-to-school traditions vary around the world?

Back to school 2021: Traditions around the world

The back-to-school season is one of the biggest commercial opportunities in the retail year. This year, with many schools re-opening for in-person learning for the first time in a while, it’s forecast to be bigger than ever. Deloitte suggested that in the US alone, 2021’s back-to-school shopping season will be 16% higher than 2020’s, with spending expected to reach $32.5 billion.


A longer window of opportunity for retailers

Parents begin researching back-to-school products, prices and promotions – usually online – as early as July. They make comparisons and reach purchase decisions in August. Last minute buys take place in September. Compared to other retail milestones such as Black Friday, this gives retailers a longer window of opportunity in which to grab consumers’ attention. (Oban’s free international travel and e-commerce calendar is a useful guide to retail dates in different markets around the world.)


More back-to-school spending is taking place online

The pandemic has accelerated a shift towards online shopping across categories. A KPMG survey showed that online penetration for back-to-school supplies was expected to increase 30% from pre-Covid levels (44% in 2021 versus 34% in 2019 in the US). Another study found that 60% of parents surveyed planned to use mobile devices for back-to-school shopping and research.


Footwear, school supplies and apparel dominate

KPMG’s survey showed that the biggest back-to-school categories were footwear, core school supplies and non-footwear apparel, with an average spend per child of $268. Fashion is expected to do especially well this year, with so many kids having spent a large part of the pandemic in loungewear or pyjamas. Conversely, electronics is forecast to see less demand YoY, with the return of in-person classes reducing the need for such products, and with many parents having already invested in learning technology earlier in the pandemic.


The right tone of voice is essential

A key challenge for retailers in 2021 was judging the right tone of voice for their campaigns. Surveys show some parents and children feel anxiety about the prospect of returning to in-person learning – especially with very few children having been vaccinated – and the pandemic has caused financial hardship which has affected communities in different ways. As a result, finding the right back-to-school message was trickier than in previous years.


Back to school traditions vary around the world

Of course, the start of the school year is not uniform across the world. Generally, it starts in August or September in the Northern Hemisphere, and January or February in the Southern Hemisphere, but specific dates vary by country. Different countries have different back-to-school traditions – here are some of the most eye-catching:



In Japan, the school year starts in April. Most children starting school receive a backpack, or a randoseru. These are sturdier and more durable backpacks than their typical Western counterparts and can often be handed down from one family member to another. Traditionally, boys were given black randoseru while girls were given red ones, but today there are more colours and styles available.

Randoseru are designed to last for all six years of primary school and as such, are considered an investment. It’s not unusual for parents to spend the equivalent to several hundred pounds on one. The bags are supposed to teach children to value their possessions and make them last.



The school year in Germany starts in late August or early September, with specific dates varying between the 16 states. Children typically experience their Einschulung – official school entry – age 6. To mark the start of their schooling, some children receive a Schultüte, which translates as ‘school cone’. This is a cone-shaped package filled with school supplies, toys and sweets. They appear in shops in August and September, but many parents make their own. Schultüte is also a tradition in regions close to Germany, including parts of Czechia, Poland and Austria. The largest German manufacturer of school cones, Nestler Feinkartonagen, produces over 2 million per year.



In Russia, and many former Soviet republics, the first day of school is 1st September – even if it’s a weekend. This date is known as ‘Knowledge Day’ – День Знаний – and was established by the Soviet Union in 1984. The day involves pupils, families and teachers gathering at schools for celebratory traditions including inspirational speeches and performances of poetry and songs.

Teachers are given flowers and in return, pupils may be given balloons. Children line up ceremoniously for the first bell – Первый Звонок – which marks the start of the new academic year. Traditionally, a first-year pupil will sit on a senior year student’s shoulder and be carried to the front of the crowd, ringing the bell loudly to welcome the new school year. Knowledge Day is also marked in Israel, because of a significant Russian diaspora.



The Indian school year typically starts in May or June. The first day of school is called praveshanotshavan – ‘Admission Day’ – and some children receive gifts including school essentials to mark the occasion. Because praveshanotshavan coincides with the start of monsoon season, these gifts often include a new umbrella.

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