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Return to in-person learning fuels big back-to-school shopping expectations

Delaware Public Media

Schools across the First State are expected to fully open – most for the first time since March 2020.  And while questions remain about how best to bring kids back from remote learning and continuing COVID protocols – there’s also the matter of getting kids the gear they need to go back into school buildings.

And contributor Eileen Dallabrida reports that means back to school shopping is back..

This is shaping up to be the biggest back-to-school shopping season on record as children return to the classroom fulltime, many for the first time in more than a year.

But while consumers are eager to buy new shoes, gear, clothes, notebooks, and electronics, glitches in the supply chain and conservative ordering by beleaguered retailers have created shortages in such staples as sneakers, backpacks, and pens.

“The year had been quiet. Now, shopping is exploding,” says Steven Chambliss, general manager of Christiana Mall. “The challenge this year is having enough stock.”

"The year had been quiet. Now, shopping is exploding. The challenge this year is having enough stock." - Christiana Mall GM Steven Chambliss

Traditionally, the back-to-school season is crucial for retailers, second only to the winter holidays in sales. This year, economists view sales as an even more important harbinger of things to come as businesses recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, department stores and apparel retailers struggled through a disastrous season as kids studied from home, where they didn’t need new shoes and fall jackets. This year, those stores are ramping up for their best year yet.

A National Retail Federation (NRF) and Prosper Insights & Analytics poll forecasts record sales of more than $37 billion, due in part to higher prices. Families will spend an average of $849 on back-to-school merchandise, an increase of about 7%. College students and their parents will spend more, an average of $1,200.

“Consumers are spending more on items like electronics and clothing as they make plans for students to resume activities in person this fall,” says Phil Rist of Prosper Insights.  “For those in particular with children in elementary to high school, shoppers are putting the largest portion of their budgets toward electronics, new clothes and accessories.”

Deloitte’s forecast is even more optimistic, predicting spending will rise 16% over last year, fueled by a 37% increase in technology purchases, including smartphones, tablets, e-readers and wearables such as watches.

Jeanmarie Braddock of North Wilmington, a teacher, will buy some school supplies online but also will visit brick-and-mortar stores to shop with her daughter Ellie, a sophomore in high school, and son Benjamin, who is starting middle school. Like most consumers, she is a comparison shopper.

"For those in particular with children in elementary to high school, shoppers are putting the largest portion of their budgets toward electronics, new clothes and accessories." - Phil Rist of Prosper Insights

“I get what I can online at Amazon and then stop in to either Target or Staples for what I need. Target generally has better prices, but I have an educator discount at Staples,” she says.

After a year-and-a-half pandemic-fueled boom for online sales, surveys find that consumers are returning to stores for their back-to-school buys. A Morning Consult/Adweek survey found that 47% of parents and students said they intend to shop mostly in stores for supplies, compared to 17% who said they plan to shop primarily online. Pollsters found a political divide among shoppers, with 58% of Republicans planning to shop in person, compared to 38% of Democrats. Independents split the difference; 48% will shop in stores.

At Christiana Mall, foot traffic is up sharply compared to this time last year as families make a day of shopping.

“It’s so much easier to do it live, to check out the fit and the color in person,” Chambliss says. “Last year, the kids were at home. Now they are a year older and an inch taller and they need everything.”

Here are other trends on the back-to-school front:

  • More money in parents’ pockets: Child tax credits aren’t new, but the American Rescue Plan boosted the amount for children ages 6-17 from $2,000 to $3,000 and $3,600 for kids under age 6. Under the plan, families receive half the money upfront through direct deposits from July to December, receiving the other half after filing taxes. That translates to $250 or $300 per child each month. In an NRF survey, 43% of back-to-class shoppers say they plan to use government money to purchase items for school.
  • Higher costs: Freight delays from Asian countries, soaring shipping rates are driving up costs for merchants, who pass part or all of it on to customers. Trucking rates are at record highs, up 49% from 2020 and 83% higher than before the pandemic.
  • Fewer places to shop: Retailers took it on the chin in 2020, including such back-to-school destinations as Justice, a seller of apparel and accessories for the pre-teen set, and the Children’s Place at Dover Mall.
  • Low inventory: Expect less selection in backpacks and limited colors and sizes in clothing. Pilot's erasable FriXion pens and Paper Mate Flair marker pens are in especially scarce supply.

Conservative orders by retailers also are translating to fewer goods on store shelves and racks. The strategy is to keep things lean rather than be pressed to sell overstock at bargain-basement prices.
"We believe it's better to potentially lose a sale due to the lack of supply than to overbuy and have markdown merchandise at higher rates," said Adrian Mitchell, Macy’s chief financial officer in a recent conference call with investors.

Meanwhile, Macy’s is working to bring in more goods the chain is confident it can sell, including denim clothes, school uniforms and small electronics.

"We see students touring the campus with their parents but not a lot of them have really started shopping yet. We are waiting for the dam to burst." - Newark Camera Shop's Michael Romagnoli

At Newark Camera Shop on East Main Street, Michael Romagnoli is expecting a spike in business from students returning to the University of Delaware. Last year, most students studied remotely. With students, faculty and staff returning to campus, he will soon be snapping photos for passports and students and supplying students with film and vintage cameras.

“We see students touring the campus with their parents but not a lot of them have really started shopping yet. We are waiting for the dam to burst,” he says.

Retailers and shopping center managers are working to draw customers off the sidelines. In Rehoboth Beach, Tanger Outlets is promoting a Back-to-School Bash on Aug. 19 from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. The outlets will offer activities throughout the weekend, including a DJ, professional photographer, and bouncy house. The Delaware State Police Mounted Unit will be there with their horses.

Despite lower inventory, shoppers wrapped up only 18% of their back-to-class purchases by early July, according to an NRF survey. Of the procrastinators, half say it’s because they haven’t received complete supply lists from teachers, although most parents already have a supply of masks and hand sanitizer. The other half say they think prices will go down as the first day of school gets closer.

Although the bargains are fewer, there still are good buys to be had. Target is offering T-shirts starting at $4 and 20% off a limited assortment of backpacks and lunchboxes. Walmart is selling a 24-pack of Crayons for 25 cents. Staples is offering 80-page composition notebooks for 50 cents. The deal only applies to in-store sales.

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.