By Elisabeth Buchwald
Families are getting a welcome taste of normalcy with most schools slated to reopen for in-person learning in the fall, but back-to-school shopping this year will present new challenges.
Similar to vacation travel and sporting events, which have seen a boom in demand as more Americans get vaccinated that’s driven up prices, school supplies are set to succumb to similar pressures.
Items including computers and tablets, sneakers and backpacks featuring characters like Peppa Pig are going to be harder to come by this year, said Alla Valente, a senior analyst at Forrester /zigman2/quotes/207174958/composite FORR -1.04% .
Tablets and computers are already in short supply due to the global chip shortage. Sneakers and licensed character backpacks are primarily manufactured in China and Taiwan. Both countries have experienced recent COVID-19 outbreaks that led to port closures.
On top of this, the cost to transport goods coming from overseas has increased as a result of skyrocketing cargo shipping rates , Valente told MarketWatch. That’s leading sellers in the U.S. to cut back on purchases.
Families with children in elementary school through high school say they plan to spend nearly $850 for on back-to-school shopping this year, including clothes, shoes and electronics.
That’s up nearly $60 on average from what parents spent on supplies last year, according to data from a joint report published by the National Retail Federation, a trade association, and Prosper Insights & Analytics, a retail analytics firm.
“Total back-to-school spending is expected to reach a record $37.1 billion, up from $33.9 billion last year,” the report states.
College students and their families are set to spend an average of $1,200 on school supplies and dorm furnishings, up $141 from last year, according to the report. This comes as many colleges and universities are resuming in-person learning and reopening dorms, in many cases requiring students to get vaccinated against COVID-19 .
In total, back-to-college spending is expected to reach a record high of $71 billion up from $67.7 billion last year.
Electronics are stretching budgets
The switch to remote learning in spring 2020 forced families to gear up on laptops and headphones as students spent their school days in front of screens. The uptick in spending in electronics was evident at the start of the 2020-21 school year, and it’s happening again this year, even as some school districts have declared that remote learning is over.
While clothes and accessories were the biggest planned expenses in 2019 back-to-school budgets , electronics took up the biggest chunk in 2020 and continue to do so this year, according to the National Retail Federation survey.
In 2019 families planned to spend $203.44 on electronics; this year they say they’ll spend $274.44, according to NRF. Among families planning to buy electronics, half (49%) plan to buy a laptop, 32% say they’ll buy a calculator and 31% say they’ll buy a tablet, the NRF survey found.
Total back-to-school spending on technology products such as personal computers, smartphones, tablets, and wearables is projected to increase 37% from 2020 to $11.8 billion, a separate survey by Deloitte found. That’s affecting how much families spend on old-school supplies. “Because their children are using more digital technologies in and out of the classroom, 44% of households plan to purchase fewer traditional back-to-school supplies,” the Deloitte report said.
Cleaning products will remain on classroom supply lists — and so will masks for younger kids
In addition to notebooks and pencils, parents and guardians of K-12 students are often asked to buy paper towels, toilet paper, tissues and other items for classrooms, even in taxpayer-funded public schools. The pandemic added hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes to those supply lists, and that trend will likely continue, especially because younger kids can’t get vaccinated yet, Valente said.
“On the one hand, schools have gotten a bigger budget cleaning supplies, but on the other hand, especially at the elementary and middle school level, there is no authorized vaccine for them yet,” Valente said, adding that she expects teachers to ask for “double the amount” of cleaning supplies this year compared to previous years.
Masks will likely continue to be part of many younger kids’ back-to-school wardrobes. While many states have lifted indoor mask requirements at businesses, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that unvaccinated children continue to wear masks at school this fall.
Back-to-school ‘bulk buying’ could happen
Unlike prior years, parents are more likely to stock up on goods that they see are in stock in stores as opposed to waiting to buy something if and when they need it, said Valente. Whereas shoppers used to assume they could just walk into a store or order an item to be quickly shipped, the pandemic changed those habits. “That’s no longer the way we are thinking,” Valente said.
“I can absolutely see more bulk buying,” she added, “this whole ‘just in case’ [mentality] is becoming part of our psyche.”
Speaking of just in case, some families are also preparing for the possibility that in-person learning doesn’t fully return this fall because of the delta variant, which is leading to an uptick in new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., Valente said, based on conversations she’s had with clients.
That may lead parents to buy even more school supplies “in case school becomes the home again.”
More than half of American families had started back-to-school and college shopping as of early July, according to the NRF and Prosper report. Some 39% of the more than 7,700 consumers surveyed said “they took advantage of recent sale events such as Amazon Prime Day /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN -0.74% , Target Deal Days /zigman2/quotes/207799045/composite TGT -0.11% and Walmart’s Deals for Days /zigman2/quotes/207374728/composite WMT -0.21% to shop specifically for school items.”
Families who haven’t started shopping are likely to find “limited choice and lower stock levels,” Neil Saunders, retail analyst and managing director at GlobalRetail Data, told CNN . “Discounts will be far less generous both because of less stock and cost inflation,” he added.
The potentially meager discounts on school supplies may add insult to injury for families that are already paying more for food, gas and utilities lately as inflation remains elevated at a 13-year high.
Compared to last June, Americans paid 5.4% more for goods and services last month.
Many economists expect prices to come down as supply chain disruptions ease, primarily for microchips, which are experiencing a massive global shortage, and as Americans return to their pre-pandemic spending habits.