Think of it as Christmas in August, at least for retailers who sell clothing, shoes, electronics and office supplies.
Back-to-school shopping season ranks second only to the winter holidays as the top spending period for consumers, according to the National Retail Federation. Between getting college students ready for the fall semester and families outfitting students in kindergarten through 12th grades for the new school year, predictions are for back-to-school spending to balloon to almost $75 billion nationwide.
Savings-savvy Fresno parents Jen and Darryl Dote hope to put a tiny dent in that huge national spending tally. The couple — who until earlier this year ran the savings and coupon advice blog FresnoCouponing.com — are keeping a sharp eye out for deals, sales and coupons as they outfit their their 16- and 12-year-old sons and their 11-year-old daughter.
“We haven’t done that much shopping this year because we stocked up on so much last year,” Darryl Dote said. “Honestly, it’s a matter of finding out when the deals are, when the lowest price points it and then stocking up. When you need something, buy it, then replenish it when the price point drops again.”
The average American household with elementary, middle and high school-aged children is expected to shell out almost $670 on back-to-school clothing and supplies for a nationwide total of about $26.5 billion. That’s significantly more than the $549 per family and total spending of $17.4 billion in 2009, before the U.S. economy began slogging its way out of a recession.
For parents, the biggest chunks of the back-to-school budget continue to be earmarked for clothing and shoes.
About 93% of families surveyed in the NRF research reported planning to have to buy clothes and shoes for their kids. The average family’s spending for clothing and accessories is anticipated at about $231, with another $125 for shoes. Collectively, retailers expect sales of back-to-school clothes and shoes for students to bring in almost $9.2 billion.
For the Dotes, home-schooling their daughter helps them save money on school clothes. The difference in age between their two sons and changing fashion trends for boys, however, puts a damper on the potential for keeping hand-me-downs in the family between older and younger brother.
“For hand-me-downs, it really just depends because the kids are so hard on their clothes,” Darryl Dote said. “We do shop here and there for clothes because the middle child is a little more fashion-conscious.”
The Dotes sometimes get together with friends and neighbors who have children to see if they can swap clothes among families as kids outgrow their duds. Such swaps are something that experts say is happening across the country.
“Hand-me-downs are still very much in play, and even more so if it’s not within a family group,” said Brian Hoyt, vice president of communications for RetailMeNot.com, a coupon and savings website. “If parents participate in moms’ clubs or neighborhood clubs, you find parents exchanging clothes and passing them down through different families.”
The increasing importance of computers, tablets, smartphones and other electronics in the classroom is also reflected in the back-to-school spending forecasts. Fewer than 60% of families reported that they planned to buy any electronics for their K-12 students, but those who will expect to spend an average of $212. Spending on electronic devices for students in grades K-12 nationwide is expected to amount to more than $8.4 billion this summer — more than double what it was just seven years ago.
Everyday school supplies such as notebooks, backpacks, pencils and folders will add up to another $101 per family, or more than $4 billion nationwide.
Nationwide, parents are being asked to shoulder more of the cost burden for things that used to be provided by schools before the recession caused tax revenues — and public school budgets — to shrink.
“Cuts in education have taken money that typically came in from the taxpayer base, and now that money is coming in directly from parents themselves,” Hoyt said. For parents with kids who participate in sports, music and art programs, the costs tend to be greater.
“In general, our survey showed that one of the biggest things parents do is self-sacrifice, pushing off purchases they were going to make for themselves to support their child’s interest in school,” Hoyt said. The most-often cited sacrifices reported by parents in the RetailMeNot survey were clothing and shoes, dining out and vacations.
The cash outlay may be one reason why most families wait until the last few weeks before the first day of school to begin their back-to-school shopping, according to the National Retail Federation survey. Almost 45% of parents surveyed said they would start their shopping three to four weeks before school, and more than 25% reported stalling until one to two weeks out.
“We know Americans are still grappling with their purchase decisions every day,” said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the NRF. “Throughout the history of this survey, spending has fluctuated based on family needs each year, and this summer we expect parents to continue to use caution, but also make smart decisions for their family budget that is a good balance between what their children want and what they actually need.”
More than 80% of families in the NRF survey say the economy continues to affect their back-to-school planning. They’re setting — and sticking to — tighter budgets and keeping a close eye out for store sales. They’re buying more store-brand or generic products, comparison shopping and using coupons. They’re buying online when it’s cheaper than brick-and-mortar stores. About one out of four families said they’ll be making do with last year’s school items, and more than 13% of families reported that they’ll do more shopping at thrift stores or resale shops.
Like many parents everywhere, the Dotes scan newspaper ads and store websites for the best sales, and they sign up for retailers’ email price alerts, shopping apps and loyalty/reward programs. They’re also keen to stock up big on standard school items like pencils, pens and notebook paper when prices hit rock bottom.
“We don’t really have a budget,” Darryl Dote said. “One of the things that helps us is that here in the Valley, school starts a little later than other areas of the country. All the national retailers do their back-to-school sales before the first schools nationwide start, and some of them are doing their clearance sales about the same time that school starts here.”