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Remote learning hampers some back-to-school businesses: Yelp

Yelp Vice President of Data Science Justin Norman joins Yahoo Finance’s Zack Guzman to break down the findings of Yelp’s back-to-school edition of its local economic report.

Video Transcript

ZACK GUZMAN: We are seeing a lot of college towns out there cheer the return of students to some select campuses. Some colleges have been able to do that well. Others have had to grapple with an outbreak on campus and ship students back home. But for the towns that are seeing students come back, new data from Yelp is showing quite the bounce back in a lot of those communities.

And here to discuss that with us is Yelp's VP of Data Science Justin Norman joins us now. And Justin, when you look into the data, what are you seeing? Because I know a lot of these college towns were hard-hit when everybody left, and summers tend to be a little bit sleepy out there. But what are you seeing now?

JUSTIN NORMAN: Thanks for having me. This is definitely a unique back-to-school season, and it's across all levels, from primary and secondary school education all the way through college towns, like you mentioned. But on the college town front to start, we are starting to see, as you mentioned, sort of a tentative recovery with year-over-year consumer interest in August down to only less than 5% of what we've seen in the respective states.

And in addition to that, we're starting to see retailers like OfficeMax, Staples, Office Depot that had these dramatic spikes early in the-- early in the pandemic start to actually come back and-- and show that there are-- there's interest in providing office supplies, paper, things that people need to go back to school, in addition to what we're seeing locally. And also, the-- the local businesses, which are normally going through these cyclical spikes and troughs as students come in and out, have actually been quite innovative and found ways to stay alive during the pandemic.

And as students are coming back, especially with these new restrictions coming into place, we're starting to see that consumer interest along the same categories we'd expect is actually starting to increase and stay steady relative to what we were expecting. So some surprising things there.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah. And I mean, the thing that jumped out to me in terms of your data was mid-August, you were looking at businesses and college towns with a 24% higher permanent closure rate compared to the rate that you see across those states since March 1. Seems quite high comparatively. But when you look into some of those services you're talking about there and categories that people are looking to search for, it was interesting to see kind of this spike in nanny services actually drop in nanny services down 32%. What does that say to you about parents thinking out there and maybe hoping that maybe they don't need those services if kids can get back to school?

JUSTIN NORMAN: So in school-aged kids, actually, there was quite a few things that we were finding interesting. So it mentions [AUDIO OUT] homeschooling are actually up 144% in our reviews and 172% in our searches. And so what that says to me is that there's a consumer demand increase for additional resources connected to childcare, as parents are looking to supplement the virtual learning efforts that are being provided by schools.

And as you can imagine, parents are navigating in-home learning environments while also trying to figure out their own work schedules. And so we're also starting to see spikes in [AUDIO OUT] installation actually up 16%, as well as private tutors that are-- that are spiking, as well, so that there's supplementation of the existing work-from-home and education environment as people start to try to figure out how they're going to manage everything together. But overall, what we're seeing is that people aren't giving up. But what they're doing is actually finding ways to sort of get it all done in a way that they weren't expecting before, but still supplementing their in-home environments with the best that technology can provide.

ZACK GUZMAN: And I mean, it seems super hard right now for any parent out there to kind of plan around this because, as we've seen so far at the collegiate level, anything can happen to kind of flip plans in terms of having people go back to school versus classes resuming online, no doubt different at the levels in education below that.

But beyond that as you kind of opened with, I mean, it did seem that more people back in March were maybe planning for, I guess not hoarding, but stockpiling some of these things that we might need in the work-from-home environment, learning-from-home environment, whether it be laptops, iPads, you know, technology like that to work from home. What does that say about maybe the pull forward and maybe how expectations for the back half this going back-to-school season might actually see a drop in tech demand for things like that?

JUSTIN NORMAN: Yeah, so I think that you're absolutely right. Many of the big-ticket tech items were probably purchased a bit earlier in the pandemic, so those iPads, those monitors, and maybe things like Wi-Fi extenders to try to make that household a bit more ready for this. But consumables, of course, are going to continue to be in high demand.

And so that's what we're expecting to see and actually starting to see trend towards being more top-of-mind for people. And that kind of bears out in the categories and the specific retailers as well. So Target, Best Buy, Walmart, those types of retailers are still seeing fairly steady interest, whereas the sort of OfficeMax and Office Depots that are more focused on this bigger-ticket items are a little bit less top-of-mind.

But I will say that consumer interest in shopping centers, and children's clothing, and categories like bookstores, where you would normally see these large spikes at the beginning of the school year are actually down substantially because people are not necessarily needing new books for school. They're [INAUDIBLE] They aren't necessarily needing new uniforms for-- for schools that have that, because they'll be able to provide that virtually as well. So it's just dependent on what people need for the specific circumstances

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, you don't need school uniforms if you can use all those Snap filters on your Zoom calls. You can be a banana. Why would you want to wear a school uniform when you can be a fruit, [INAUDIBLE]. Justin Norman, Yelp's VP of Data Science, appreciate the conversation, man. Be well.