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Enlighten Me: Back-to-school shopping trends

Delaware Public Media

This year, back-to-school shoppers are expected to spend more than ever before—and they will part with their dollars in multiple ways in a variety of retail spaces.

In its annual survey, the National Retail Federation forecasts that parents with children in elementary through high school will spend an average of $696.70, up slightly from $684.79 last year. That would top the previous record of $687.72 set in 2017.

With dorm rooms or apartments to equip, families with college students will spend more, a record average of $976.78, says the NRF, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group.

That’s good news for merchants in this critical season, second only to the winter holidays in consumer spending.

Once again, bricks will outpace clicks, with 88 percent of consumers saying they will shop at mass merchant stores, according to a survey by the consulting firm Deloitte. But for the first time, internet retailers will edge out dollar stores in back-to-school purchases, with 45 percent of shoppers doing business online and 36 percent heading to dollar discounters.

“Price, product and convenience are the foundation of back-to-school shopping, like reading, writing and arithmetic,” said Rod Sides of Deloitte in a statement. 

In back-to-school shopping for clothing and accessories, the kids are pushing the cart toward such trendy items as combat boots. You will find youthful customers on both ends of the fashion spectrum at the home of Robin Zizmont in Wilmington, where she lives with her 16-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter.

“My son doesn’t care about shopping and says ‘whatever you get, I’ll like,’” Zizmont says. “My daughter cares a lot. If she doesn’t see what she wants on Amazon, we go to a store.”

Her son’s high school doesn’t have a dress code. His mom is buying him comfy, laid-back clothes from Land’s End and Kohl’s. His sister plans to pick out his sneakers.

Her daughter wears a uniform, with preppie boat shoes by Sperry. The rub is, the tween couldn’t find the nontraditional pair she wanted in stores. So, she shopped online until she located a merchant who had the shoes in stock.

“She is very particular and a store in California was the only place who carried them,” Zizmont says.

For school supplies, Walmart is her first destination and “if I can’t find it at Walmart, I’ll go to Target or Staples.”

Zizmont’s son prefers to buy his lunch at school. But her daughter carries a lunchbox, “cute and not too loud of a print, more preppy.”

She buys a new lunchbox for her daughter every year but only replaces backpacks every few years.

“I look for quality so they last,” she says. “Then we keep them until they get gross or fall apart.”

It’s a teachable moment, discussing the back-to-school budget with the kids.

“We have the talk about needs versus wants,” Zizmont says. “It’s important for children to learn about budgeting and school shopping is a good place to start.”

She keeps her finger on the pulse of social media to learn about the best buys. And she doesn’t wait until the last minute to buy.

 “The earlier you go, the better,” she says. “In the past, I’ve waited until the week before school and everything was picked over. I wound up spending more, plus having to go more places.”

This year, 63 percent of parents planned to buy items for the school year in July or earlier, up from 60 percent last year, according to a study by RetailMeNot, a digital coupon provider. Michelle Skupin, RetailMeNot’s head of marketing and communications, attributes the jumpstart to Amazon Prime promotions in mid-July, which sparked a flurry of fierce retail competition.  

She notes that when Amazon launched Prime Day as a midsummer shopping event, only about half a dozen retailers offered competing deals. Last year, 200 retailers offered bargains. This year, 250 retailers competed.

Throughout the back-to-school season, retailers are wooing consumers with deep discounts and copious convenience. Here are some strategies:

  • Target is offering shoppers the option of ordering online and picking up in stores, or having the goods brought directly to the customer’s vehicle. Too much work? Target will deliver to the shopper’s home.
  • Kohl’s is offering to pack and ship customers’ returns to Amazon for free while customers browse Kohl’s for their latest retail needs. Customers who buy online can pick up in stores within two hours
  • Walmart also is providing pick up at stores, as well as next-day delivery on orders of $35 or more. Door busters in The Big Save campaign include an eight-pack of Crayola washable markers, discounted from $6 to $3; a two-pack of blunt-end scissors is $1.99, snipped from $4.99; a Texas Instruments TI-84 Plus CE graphing calculator is marked down from $150 to $118.
  • Office Depot’s website allows shoppers to pull up supply lists according to students’ schools and classrooms. Deals include three-pronged folders for 33 cents, spiral notebooks for 25 cents, and a box of 24 Crayola crayons for 75 cents.

New styles and products also get consumers excited about spending. Here are fashion trends to watch:

  • Pouches instead of purses. Tweens are decluttering with zip-up pouches that keep student IDs, money and small toiletries separated and easily accessible.
  • Bento boxes over lunch boxes. Youthful consumers have an appetite for boxes that are compartmentalized, a plastic, dishwasher-safe riff on the bento boxes served in Asian restaurants.
  • Odor-eating backpack fresheners help to combat smells from forgotten lunches and dirty gym socks. (Arm & Hammer’s disc-size Munchkin Fresheners were originally developed for the nursery.)
Learn more about the changes in the shoe shopping landscape this back-to-school season here.

While clothing and accessories command 54 percent of back-to-school dollars, Deloitte predicts an increase in spending on electronics and gadgets, with families spending an average of $41 more than last year. Wearable technology, such as the Apple Watch, is on more shopping lists.

Across the board, retailers are intent on making it easy to shop. Kohl’s polled more than 1,500 parents and 61 percent said they want a back-to-school shopping checklist. Kohl’s responded with a special checklist on its website. Target is offering teachers a 15-percent discount on select school supplies.

Shoppers who buy in stores often use the internet to find products and research prices before they get in the car. But the use of desktop computers is declining, according to Deloitte, with 42 percent of consumers doing research on their computers, down from 49 percent last year.

Instead they are using their phones, with 60 percent doing their back-to-school shopping homework through comparison shopping, and 51 percent looking up discounts or promotions.


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.