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Families still hit the stores for back-to-School shopping

Delaware Public Media

Over the years, back-to-school shopping has become more than a retail excursion for JoAnn Babbie and her two sons.

Picking out binders and backpacks requires a parent-child conversation. Comparing prices is a teachable moment. And handing over the credit card and car keys to allow the boys to do some shopping on their own is a rite of passage.

It’s also an exercise that requires an in-store experience.

“I am on the computer for work and my sons spend time online, too,” she says. “The last thing I want to do is get on the computer and shop.”

That’s a sentiment shared by the majority of consumers as shoppers head out on what is expected to be the third-highest ever back-to-school spending season.  

Families are expected to spend a total of $27.5 billion on purchases for students in kindergarten through high school, according to the National Retail Federation, a Washington D.C.-based trade group. That averages out to $684.79 per student. Shopping for college kids is expected to reach an all-time high of $942 per student. Only 4 percent of consumers expect to do all their shopping online.

So, where is the money going? According to the NRF, the largest expenses for K-12 students are:

  • $236 per family for clothing, not including footwear
  • $187 for electronics
  • $138 for shoes
  • $122 for school supplies, such as paper, binders, lunchboxes and backpacks

While spending on most categories edged up slightly, expenditures on electronics such as calculators, computers and smartphones are expected to trend down.

Analysts theorize that is because technology has become firmly rooted in households, with families investing in electronics year-round.

“Items like laptops, tablets and smartphones are now an everyday part of household life and aren’t necessarily a purchase parents save for the start of the school year,” says Mark Mathews, NFR’s vice president for research. 

Increasingly, retailers are going digital in luring shoppers to stores. Retailers are have rolled out apps for easy ordering and in-store pickup. Target is marketing directly to teachers and offering them a 15-percent discount on school supplies. The retailer is wooing college shoppers by offering 15 percent off dorm and apartment furnishings ordered online and picked up at the store. Students also can start a college registry.

Kohl’s is so confident shoppers will choose brick-and-mortar that the big box retailer has hired seasonal help in more than 1,100 stores and 300 other locations, including its distribution and e-commerce fulfillment centers. The new hires are expected to work through the winter holiday season.

Walmart broadened its mobile app to allow users to search for their child’s school supply list and then precisely locate where the supplies are in the store. Parents enter their zip code, select their child’s school and teacher, and the app populates the supply list.

Price comparison tools such as Honey and Shopsavvy allow consumers to ensure they are getting the best deal. And shoppers likely won’t have to schlep from store to store to get the lowest prices. Best Buy, Target, Walmart and a number of other retailers are offering a price match.

Babbie receives texts from Staples, which is sending such messages as codes for 25 percent off laptop accessories.

“They have a better selection than Walmart, so we will do some shopping there,” she says.

Her sons, 17-year-old Zach and 14-year-old Justin, will attend Cape Henlopen High School in Lewes. This year, she expects to spend more time shopping for clothing compared to the years the boys attended Sussex Academy and wore uniforms.

“My younger son is a great shopper,” she says. “He always looks for the best price and opportunities to use coupons.”

Her older son color-codes his binders and notebooks, choosing a different color for each class. He will save money by reusing the three-ring binders that are in good shape. His younger brother will keep using the scientific calculator their mother bought him in junior high school.

Back-to-school shopping is often a social occasion for mother and sons, with the three stopping for ice cream on their way home from the store.  

“Now that my older son is driving, they might even do a little shopping on their own,” Babbie says. “They have proven that they are good shoppers and can be trusted with a credit card.”

The NRF predicts that 96 percent of shoppers will make at least one in-store purchase for school. While the Babbies plan to make 100 percent of their purchases in stores, most consumers take a hybrid approach.

A survey by Deloitte found that 49 percent of consumers plan to use their laptop in some way for back-to-school shopping, with 44 percent of those shoppers looking for discounts and coupons and 53 percent making a purchase.

That said, there’s still a $5.5 billion slice of pie on the table, with 20 percent of shoppers still undecided as to whether they will serve their dollars to brick-and-mortar stores or online retailers.

Bargains are abundant, with Target packing $7.99 lunch kits and Walmart offering 24-count Crayola crayons and Elmer’s glue sticks for 50 cents. Kohl’s has reduced prices on Chaps girl’s polo shirts for school uniforms from $20 to $9.60.

In a season of ferociously competitive pricing, retailers must deliver more than low prices to attract consumers, says Ron Sides, who leads Deloitte’s U.S. Retail, Wholesale and Distribution team.

“It’s likely about delivering the best possible experience to customers in specific product categories,” he says.

It makes dollars and sense for retailers to lure consumers into stores as soon as possible. Shoppers who begin buying before August spend an average of $100 more than customers who wait.

Conversely, buyers who bide their time could wind up getting the best deals, according to back-to-school shopping strategists at Consumer Reports. They suggest asking the teacher which supplies are needed on the first day of school. Bargain hunters can hold off buying other items until September when clearance sales start.

Put off by prices on electronics? Another money-saving option is to buy certified refurbished laptops and smartphones. Manufacturer-refurbished goods have been restored to factory condition and are covered by warrantees.

Amy and Gavin Bish of Wilmington have just started shopping for school with their 6-year-old son Jack, who enjoys picking out his own clothes at Carter’s.

“His favorites are what he calls comfy pants,” his father says. “He also likes backpacks with Disney characters and bright colors.”

Like Babbie, they enjoy the parent-child interaction of shopping at stores and teaching their son to comparison shop and weigh options.

“We give him some choices that are reasonable,” Bish says. “As he gets older, we imagine he will be making more of the decisions.”

Eileen Smith Dallabrida has written for Delaware Public Media since 2010. She's also written for USA Today, National Geographic Traveler, the Christian Science Monitor and many other news outlets.