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Inflation comes for back-to-school shopping

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As millions of kids pile back into schools for the start of the fall semester, parents have been scrambling to make it through the back-to-school shopping season. While back-to-school shopping is something of an end-of-summer tradition for millions of families, rising prices over the past six months have made this year’s shopping trips more expensive.

Parents plan to spend an average of $661 per child this year on back-to-school supplies, clothes, and more, an increase of 8% from last year, according to data from Deloitte. Further, the market size for back-to-school shopping is expected to reach $34.4 billion, up a whopping 24% since 2019.

The cost increases are coming from all directions, too. While prices are up on pencils and notebooks, parents are also looking at higher costs for new clothing and shoes, computers and calculators, and with gas prices up over last year, too, even dropping the kids off at school is pricier. 

What’s driving up spending

With the consumer price index (CPI) hovering around 9% in recent months, an average 8% increase in back-to-school spending is more or less on par with inflation. And while many families are struggling with increased costs, experts say that the increase in spending on back-to-school related goods and services is not all due to inflation—in fact, spending has been trending up for years, a trend seen in Deloitte’s data.

“We are seeing both per-person and total spending on par with last year’s record numbers, and of course, some of that can be attributed to higher prices and inflation, but it’s a part of a bigger shift in spending since the beginning of the pandemic,” says Katherine Cullen, senior director of industry and consumer insights at the National Retail Federation. Cullen says that a mix of issues— including rising costs of labor, supply shortages, and increased shipping times from overseas manufacturers— along growing demand during the pandemic has created a “perfect storm” for higher prices this year,. Combined, it’s led to price hikes on in-demand items this summer, such as school supplies, clothes, and electronics.

“Historically, how people respond to inflation is that they cut back on non-essentials or take fewer shopping trips,” she says. “We’re seeing all of that happen, but the interesting thing about back-to-school shopping is that, for many families, it falls into that ‘essential’ category.”

Another important element driving record back-to-school spending is an increased reliance on technology both at home and in the classroom. Many kids need laptops, tablets, smartphones, and more in order to complete their schoolwork, and Cullen says that buying those products adds an often hefty amount to total spending figures, and inflation on those products over the past several months could amplify it even more.

Where prices are rising the fastest

As for some specific items and categories, data figures from commerce data and fintech company Klover, which shared data with Fast Company, found that office supplies are seeing the biggest price hikes:

  • Scotch Tape and Sharpies saw the highest unit price increase, costing more than 50% more than last year. 
  • Notebooks saw a 32% average markup over 2021.
  • Lunch boxes are priced 14% higher than last year.
  • Backpacks are 12% more expensive than last year.

Saving money on school supplies

In response to rising prices across the board, 51% of consumers report they are only buying back-to-school items that are on sale, according to Klover’s data. “Shoppers are eagerly looking for discounts this back-to-school season and are willing to shop over longer periods to find them and across more brands and retailers to find them,” says Guru Hariharan, the CEO of CommerceIQ, a retail e-commerce management tool platform.

“I’ve been seeing lots of deals during back to school, so knowing how to compare prices and using apps to track coupons can stretch your dollars,” says consumer finance expert Andrea Woroch. “We’re seeing sales somewhat across the board — we’re definitely seeing them at Target, Walmart, and other big-box retailers or department stores.” 

In addition to shopping sales, there are several other things that families can do to try and save during the back-to-school rush, says Woroch. Before going to the store to buy everything on their kids’ lists, Woroch recommends taking stock of what kids may already have, checking out “buy nothing” groups on social media, or tapping local parents’ groups who may be open to swapping supplies. She also recommends buying store brands for many items, which can be considerably cheaper than brand-name supplies. 

Also, don’t overlook the potential to save during sales tax holidays, which occur in several states. While we may have already missed those tax holidays this year (most occur during the first week of August), parents can mark their calendars for next year to save some cash. Even teachers can look to take advantage of certain, albeit meager, tax breaks from the federal government when buying supplies.

All told, there are some things parents can do to try to lessen the hit to their wallets during this year’s back-to-school rush, though they should expect they may have to spend more than last year while grappling with inflation on other essential items. For families who are trying to find hundreds of extra dollars for school supplies this year, Woroch says that “this is a struggle.”





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