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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

With colleges and grade schools going virtual, marketers are trying to come up with ways to pry consumers' wallets open during the back-to-school season.

Between the lines: Retail sales in July came in higher than they were in February, before the pandemic sent stores and restaurants closing en masse, the Commerce Department reported Friday morning.

The big picture: Marketers are keen to convince parents to turn college-bound teens' bedrooms into dorm rooms, kitchens into faux cafeterias, and backyards into recess playgrounds — by buying new stuff from retailers eager to keep the fall shopping season from being a bust.

  • Despite all the factors working against U.S. merchants — like high unemployment and shoppers who are wary of malls — it was the third straight month that retail sales have risen, pointing to robust demand despite an economy that entered a recession in February.
  • "Consumers last month boosted spending on electronics and appliances, health products and restaurant meals," per the WSJ.

The marketing wizardry: While some retailers are still highlighting their backpacks and lunch boxes, forward-thinking competitors are hawking stylish masks, homeschooling supplies, and products to help turn your home into a school — clever taglines included.

  • Target: "Find everything you need for wherever you college."
  • Bed Bath & Beyond has published a guide on "How to design your own 'dorm room' at home." (Suggestions include "create a cohesive look," "express yourself" and check out these desk chairs, lamps and comforters for sale!)
  • Per the NYT: "Kohl’s back-to-school offerings are listed online with the tagline, 'Heading back or logging in, the new year starts here.'"

The bottom line: Enhanced unemployment benefits of $600 a week ended July 31, leaving many Americans with less disposable income. And the extra $300 a week that President Trump aims to deliver will likely take some time to arrive.

  • This means that August retail sales are likely to drop, despite the best efforts of retailers' marketing departments.

Go deeper

Chaos looms as biggest U.S. shipping companies prepare for holiday rush

Pallets with mail-in ballots at a USPS center. Photo: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

If you rely on last-minute holiday shopping, 2020 won't be your year.

Why it matters: America's biggest shipping companies are out of excess capacity, and that's before the holiday rush.

Prosecutors charge parents of Michigan school shooting suspect

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The parents of a 15-year-old accused of killing four students and wounding seven other people at a Michigan high school have been charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter, according to court documents.

The latest: Lawyers for James and Jennifer Crumbley told the Detroit News they are "returning to the area to be arraigned," after law enforcement officials announced a search for the Crumbleys had been initiated.

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus variant surveillance varies widely by state — Omicron cases confirmed in 5 U.S. states America probably won't lead the effort to understand Omicron.
  2. Vaccines: Omicron adds urgency to vaccinating world — Omicron fuels the case for COVID boosters — Moderna loses patent battles tied to COVID vaccine.
  3. Politics: Nevada to impose insurance surcharge on unvaccinated state workers — New Jersey GOP lawmakers defy statehouse COVID policy — Oklahoma sues Biden administration over Pentagon vaccine mandate — Omicron travel bans are sign of what's to come.
  4. World: WHO: Delta health measures help fight Omicron — COVID cases surge in South Africa in sign Omicron wave is coming — Germany approves new restrictions for unvaccinated people.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.