Back-to-school costs rise: Parents spending more on school items this year

Amanda Moulds, a sales associate at G&M Variety, restocks some of the back-to-school items at the downtown St. Joseph store. Back-to-school is a big season for consumers and the U.S. economy. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

Amanda Moulds, a sales associate at G&M Variety, restocks some of the back-to-school items at the downtown St. Joseph store. Back-to-school is a big season for consumers and the U.S. economy. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Maria Jordan knows the struggle.

As the school year begins, so must her hunt for school supplies and new clothes for her three children.

Jordan shells out about $300 per child after their school district sends a list of suggested material to buy. All in all, Jordan pays more than $900 by the end of the first week of school.

“Clothes and shoes cost the most,” Jordan said. “They grow pretty fast and go through at least two sneakers per school year. With backpacks, I started out with having a rule that everyone got one every other year, but that’s gotten a little lax.”

It’s an important time of year for retailers as parents like Jordan decide whether to buy only the necessities or go all out for their kids.

According to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey conducted by Prosper Insights and Analytics, it appears that back-to-school spending has increased in 2016. Each year, NRF works with an analytics company to find out when, where and how families will shop.

The report revealed the average family with children in grades K-12 plan to spend an average $673.57 on apparel and accessories, electronics, shoes and school supplies combined. That’s up from last year’s $630.36 – an increase of 9.6 percent.

The total spending for K-12 and college students is expected to reach $75.8 billion, up from last year’s $68 billion, according to the NRF.

“Families are still looking for bargains, but there are signs that they are less worried about the economy than in the past,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a news release.

The numbers follow a pattern in which spending often increases one year as families stock up on supplies only to drop off the next as they get a second year out of longer-lasting items like backpacks or computers.

Spending increases in the third year once children outgrow clothing or items need to be replaced.

Lisa Schlender, a mother of two that lives in Stevensville, said she has to pay more this year for clothing because her oldest daughter, who attends Lakeshore Middle School, has gotten taller.

“We’re about $250 in for clothes and shoes because she’s running cross country,” Schlender said. “A good pair of running shoes cost a lot. She’s grown out of all of her pants. Anything with any length, she’s grown out of.”

More money comes into play for Schlender when she had to buy her 11-year-old a new calculator and other items recommended by her school.

According to the survey, K-12 consumers plan to spend $9.5 billion on clothing, $8.2 billion on electronics, $5.1 billion on shoes and $4.3 billion on school supplies such as notebooks, folders, pencils, backpacks and lunchboxes.

Parents surveyed say they will spend an average of $235 on clothing, $204 on electronics, $126 on shoes and $108 on school supplies.

Consumer confidence in the economy continues to grow and is a significant factor in how families will spend for back-to-school this year.

The number of shoppers who say they are spending less overall is down at 23 percent compared to 27 percent last year. The number of people who say the economy will have no effect on their plans is at 27 percent, up from 24 percent last year and the highest level in the survey’s history.

“The budget-conscious consumer is not forgetting about price, quality or value, and we continue to see this when it comes to back-to-school shopping,” Prosper Principal Analyst Pam Goodfellow said in a news release.

The early bird

More families are tackling back-to-school lists earlier this year with 73 percent beginning about a month to two months out from the beginning of school.

That’s up from 62 percent last year.

Only 22 percent are waiting for the last week or two, down from 30 percent. A total of 75 percent of those shopping early say they are trying to spread out their budgets, 63 percent of early shoppers don’t want to miss out on back-to-school sales and 51 percent want to avoid crowds.

Schlender said she tries to buy supplies throughout the summer to lessen the blow that comes with the yearly ritual.

“I try to stay three weeks ahead for the sales. I don’t pick them all up at one time,” Schlender said. “The calculator we ordered earlier because I knew there would be a run on the one they said they wanted for the Texas Instrument type. We ordered that online.”

Discount stores continue to be the choice of the largest share of shoppers at 61 percent, but the number is at its lowest level in the survey’s history. Where as Schlender picked up items at Target and Costco, Jordan found sales at malls in Indiana.

College students and families with children in college plan to spend an average of $889 this year, according to the survey.

That’s down slightly from $899 last year. However, total spending is expected to be up at $48.5 billion compared with $43.1 billion last year due to an increase of consumers shopping for back-to-college items.

“Whether it’s laptops for class or mini-fridges for the dorm, college simply costs more than the lower grades,” Shay said in a release. “Some of these big-ticket items can last all four years, but when they need to be replaced, it’s a bigger investment than pencils and lunchboxes.”

The survey found college consumers plan to spend $11.5 billion on electronics, $7.4 billion on clothing, $6.2 billion on dorm furnishings, $5.7 billion on food items, $4.2 billion on personal care items, $3.8 billion on shoes, $3.5 billion on school supplies, $3.1 billion on gift cards and $2.7 billion on branded collegiate gear.

Spending on electronics are expected to average $211, apparel and accessories $137, dorm furnishings $114, food $106, personal care items $78, shoes $70, school supplies $65, gift cards $58 and branded gear $49 for the average family.

Similar to K-12, 30 percent of college consumers say the economy will not affect their shopping plans – up from 26 percent and the highest level in the survey’s history.

Discount stores still account for the largest share of college shopping, visited by 44 percent of consumers. However, the number is at its lowest level in the NRF’s survey history.

Only 34 percent will visit a college bookstore, also a new low. Online shopping is the choice of 38 percent of shoppers, down from 39 percent last year and a peak of 45 percent two years ago.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Aug. 29, 2016)

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