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What Retail Needs to Know about This Year’s School and College-Shopping Season

Inflation looms large in this year’s back-to-school shopping season.

With inflation driving a 9.1 percent increase in consumer prices, National Retail Federation (NRF) president and CEO Matthew Shay on Wednesday urged the Biden administration to “remove China tariffs that cost American families more than $1,200 annually,” in a move that would help “put much-needed dollars back into the pockets of consumers at a time when every dollar of cost savings is essential.”

Though shoppers are seen matching last year’s record high $37 billion spend on products for school-age pupils, back-to-college spending should come in $3 billion above 2021’s $71 billion haul, according to a pair of surveys NRF conducted with Prosper Insights & Analytics.

Families with children in elementary through high school (K-12) plan to spend on average $864 on school items, or about $15 more than last year. These shoppers will spend $168 more on average over 2019, with total spend up $11 billion.

Average college-focused spending is projected at $1,199, on par with last year’s $1,200. Since 2019, total spend for this segment has grown by $19 billion, with consumers shelling out $223 more on average than they did before the pandemic. About half of the increase has gone toward electronics and dorm or apartment furnishings.

As of early July, more than half, or 56 percent, of shoppers had started shopping for school and college supplies as consumers get a jump start to get their money’s worth out of inflated prices.

Clothing is a top-three item on the back-to-school shopping list. June apparel prices rose 1.4 percent for boys and 0.5 percent for girls while shoe prices for each gender climbed 1.2 percent. Home goods prices rose 0.5 percent for the month and bedding was up 1.1 percent, according to the Consumer Price Index.

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NRF’s Shay said families are “taking whatever steps they can” to make sure they can cross everything off their back-to-school and -college lists, including “cutting back on discretionary spending, shopping sales and buying store- or off-brand items, in order to purchase what they need for the upcoming school year.”

“The back-to-school season is among the most significant shopping events for consumers and retailers alike, second only to the winter holiday season,” he pointed out.

People hunting for the best budget-minded deals are even more likely to search out sales like Prime Day this year, according to NRF. A growing number of consumers plans to hit a variety of outlets before they wrap up their shopping. Half of back-to-school shoppers will purchase at least some items online, and they also plan to shop department stores (45 percent), discount retailers (40 percent), clothing stores (37 percent) and places that sell electronics (28 percent). Among those shopping for college items, a smaller number will shop online (43 percent), followed by department stores (36 percent), discount stores (29 percent), office supply stores (27 percent) and college bookstores (26 percent).

Deloitte’s May 20-June 2 back-to-school study sees people spending $661 per student for a K-12 total of $34.4 billion. The study expects an 8 percent dip in tech spend this year, with shoppers focused on acquiring traditional supplies and clothing as the season’s sales are projected to rise 18 percent from 2021, when Covid outbreaks drove a school that ran in fits and starts. Deloitte’s data says consumers will do more of their back-to-school shopping in physical stores and use social media and tech less than they have in the past to inform their purchases.

On the shopping-for-college front, projections from Deloitte’s May 20-June 14 survey call for a seasonal outlay of $28.3 billion, or $1,600 per student, with tech spending up 22 percent over last year. Spending on apparel and accessories is seen climbing 10 percent, though dorm or apartment furniture spending is expected to dip 15 percent, Deloitte said.

The consulting firm also found concern about inflation driving consumers to start their school and college shopping early to avoid prices rising any higher and product going out of stock. Of note, people are interested in purchasing products that support student mental health.

“Even as economic and inflationary pressures sit top of mind, parents seem resilient and determined to ensure their children get the school supplies needed to succeed this coming year. Retailers that remain conscious of this determination, while being mindful to address shoppers’ ongoing economic concerns, could earn trust and position themselves strongly,” Nick Handrinos, vice chair and U.S. leader, retail, wholesale and distribution and consumer products at Deloitte, said.