Back-to-school shopping: how families survive despite rising costs

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The back-to-school baskets in Jonelle Wood’s penthouse have been full since the end of June, with enough paper, pencils and clothes to keep her three school-aged children going through this fall. All for $ 245.

He subtracts some cash from each paycheck to collect year-round equipment, scheduled for sales at Walmart and Target, and coupons and cashback rewards at CVS and Walgreens. “If I didn’t do it like that, I couldn’t afford it [it] when it was time for school, “he said.

Many Americans have become equally savvy as they work out their back-to-school lists in this era of raging inflation, Deloitte and JLL research shows. They’re tracking sales, flocking to discounters, and working extra shifts. Many have also started shopping months earlier than usual to anticipate a season that the National Retail Federation estimates will run the typical US $ 864 household.

They’re also paying attention to the industry, said Chip West, a retail and consumer behavior expert at marketing solutions firm Vericast. The supply chain bottlenecks that once plagued retailers have given way to stockpiling for many large stores, forcing them to cut prices to eliminate the excess.

“They know there is more business out there,” West said. “They are looking for more of those promotions, sales and coupons to help them save money.”

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The stakes are high for retailers: Americans spent a record $ 37 billion in 2021, according to the National Retail Federation, which predicts comparable numbers this year.

While government data showed consumer spending rose a healthy 1.1 percent in June, consumer sentiment – as measured by the University of Michigan – hit an all-time low of 50 that month. As consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of the US economy, economists and politicians are watching closely for any signs of downsizing and possible recession.

The season is also a barometer for the crucial holiday shopping season, West said. If families can cover the costs for the new school year, they are more likely to spend during the holidays, especially if they start shopping early and spread the costs over several months.

“As long as inflationary pressures remain high, the consumer behavior and sentiment we are seeing for back-to-school shopping could easily carry over into the holiday shopping season,” he said.

But Stephen Rogers, chief executive of Deloitte’s Consumer Industry Center, said consumers will spend despite higher prices – inflation rose 9.1% in June, year after year – because they see school expenses as a necessity.

“Parents will always make it happen for their kids,” she said.

Michelle Cain, mother of 9 and 6-year-old twins in a Chicago suburb, is meticulous in her search for bargains. She keeps a spreadsheet of the items her children will need, and she uses search techniques normally reserved for large purchases such as a car or an appliance. Going item by item, Cain compares the prices of Walmart, Target, Amazon and any other big-selling store, he said, and adds them to his cart before deciding whether it’s worth buying them all in one place or shopping in. more shops.

Cain, 40, regularly shares his findings in Facebook groups – notifying parents when backpacks are halfway through or indicators are marked by a few dollars – and stretches his purchases between payment cycles. Excluding clothes, Cain says he spent about $ 100 per child this year.

A JLL survey found that nearly 60% of shoppers plan to look for sales and coupons this year, and 50% will focus on essentials and buy less. Discounted retailers are attracting new customers, including those who have never shopped at a dollar store before, West said. In May, both Dollar General and Dollar Tree raised their sales forecasts for 2022, reinforced by the change in buying habits due to inflation.

Amanda Frey, 39, said she cut unnecessary shopping expenses for her 8 and 16 this summer. Unlike in other years, when children received a pair of new shoes and shiny satchels with motifs and characters, this year they will have to wear the ones they already have and use simple notebooks. She also searched their closets to make a list of the things they absolutely needed. Even then, she chose the cheapest purchase option.

“My daughter shopped at consignment shops where I was credited with delivering her older clothes instead of buying new things,” said Frey, who lives in St. Marys, a town of about 18,000 people in the south. -eastern Georgia.

Wood, 36, from Oklahoma, took full advantage of the big discounts. He said he found his 16-year-old son’s favorite pants at Walmart for $ 1 a piece.

“It has 15 pairs,” Wood said. “A couple older and then a few that fit him now.”

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The 2021 supply chain disruptions that left school supply aisles bare and led to back orders for computers and tablets shouldn’t be a problem this year, said Darcy MacClaren, head of the digital supply chain at SAP North. America, because producers and shops are better prepared.

“Technology [and] your basic school supplies are fairly stable, ”he said, and should be readily available. But the discounts may lessen as summer draws to a close and stores stop stocking seasonal aisles.

Cain, from the Chicago suburbs, said she didn’t always have to be so determined about business in years past: she works part-time as an office administrator and her husband has a well-paid job in marketing. But the higher gas and food prices put a strain on her family.

“If it’s a problem for us, I can’t imagine what it means for people who aren’t in the financial situation we’re in and don’t have access to the stores we have,” he said.

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