Back-to-school shopping: How families survive despite rising costs
Deloitte and JLL research shows that many Americans have become similarly smart while working through back-to-school rolls in an era of hyperinflation. They track sales, stream to discount stores, and work overtime. Many also began shopping months earlier than usual to get ready for the season that the National Retail Federation estimates will run the typical $864 American family.
They are also interested in the industry, said Chip West, an expert in retail and consumer behavior at marketing solutions company Vericast. The supply chain bottlenecks that once plagued retailers have given way to a backlog of inventory for many supermarkets, forcing them to cut prices to remove the surplus.
“They know there are more deals to be struck out there,” West said. “They’re 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 $37 billion in 2021, according to the National Retail Federation, which expects similar numbers this year.
While government data showed consumer spending rose 1.1 percent in June, consumer confidence — as measured by the University of Michigan — hit a record low of 50 that month. With consumer spending making up more than two-thirds of the US economy, economists and policy makers are watching closely for any sign of deflation and possible recession.
The season is also a measure of the crucial holiday shopping season, West said. If families can cover the costs of 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, consumer behavior and sentiment that we see about back-to-school shopping can easily carry over into the holiday shopping season,” he said.
But Stephen Rogers, managing director of the Center for the Consumer Industry at Deloitte, said consumers will spend despite higher prices — inflation jumped 9.1 percent in June, year on year — because they view school-related expenses as essentials.
“Parents will always make this happen to their children,” he said.
Michelle Caine, mother of 9- and 6-year-old twins in a suburb of Chicago, is meticulous in her search for deals. She keeps a spreadsheet of items her kids will need and uses search techniques usually reserved for big-ticket purchases like a car or device. Going to item by item, Cain compares prices at Walmart, Target, Amazon, and any other stores that run big, she said, and adds them to the cart before deciding whether it’s worth buying them all in one place or shopping at multiple stores.
Cain, 40, routinely shares her findings in Facebook groups — notifying parents when backpacks are half-parked or tags are marked for less than a few dollars — and stretches her shopping between pay cycles. Cain says she’s spent about $100 per child this year, excluding clothes.
A survey from JLL found that nearly 60 percent of shoppers plan to look for sales and coupons this year, and 50 percent will focus on essential items and buy less. West said retailers that offer deep discounts are attracting new customers, including those who haven’t shopped at a dollar store before. In May, Dollar General and Dollar Tree raised their sales forecasts for 2022, buoyed by changing shopper habits due to inflation.
Amanda Fry, 39, said she cut out unnecessary expenses when shopping for her two children, ages 8 and 16, this summer. Unlike other years, when kids get a new pair of shoes and shiny folders with patterns and characters, this year they’ll have to wear what they already have and use regular notebooks. She also sifted through their cupboards to make a list of the things they needed most. However, she chose the most cost-effective shopping option.
“My daughter was shopping at consignment stores where I had balances from delivering her old clothes, rather than shopping for new things,” said Fry, who lives in St. Marys, a town of about 18,000 people in southeast Georgia.
Wood, 36, of Oklahoma, was taking full advantage of the big write-offs. She said she found her 16-year-old son’s favorite pair of pants at Walmart for $1 a piece.
“He has 15 pairs,” Wood said. “A couple bigger then some that fit right now.”
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Darcy MacLaren, head of digital supply chain at SAP North America, said the supply chain disruptions in 2021 that left school supplies aisles bare and led to a return of orders for computers and tablets should not be an issue this year, because manufacturers and stores are more prepared.
“technology [and] Your basic school supplies are pretty much stable, she said, and should be readily available. But the discounts may fade as summer approaches and stores stop restocking seasonal aisles.
Ken, from a suburb of Chicago, said that in years past, she didn’t always have to be purposeful about shopping deals — she works part-time as an office manager and her husband has a well-paying job in marketing. But rising gas and groceries prices put pressure on her family.
“If this is a problem for us, I can’t imagine what it would be like for people who are not in a financial position like we are and don’t have access to the stores we own,” she said.