As you read this, some 50 million kids are in the process of returning to the classroom and that, believe it or not, brings America’s second biggest shopping season to a close. With the sole exception of the winter holiday season, back to school is now the dominant spending occasion. According to the National Retail Federation, parents and guardians will drop a cool $83.6 billion on supplying the kids for grade school, high school and college this year. It’s an amount that easily dwarfs what consumers spend on Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day and Easter combined.
And for many, that shopping bill hurts. A lot. In fact, 2017 was predicted to be the second most expensive year since 2003 for back-to-school shoppers. According to the NRF, it’s better than a 10 percent increase over last year, and a 60 percent increase when measured over the last decade. The share for your average parent of a middle-school kid comes to $1,001, according to the Huntington Bank Backpack Index, an annual research report undertaken by Communities in Schools, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to reducing student dropout rates.
“The research validates what we see day to day and every year—the cost of sending kids back to school is steadily increasing,” said CIS communications vp Steve Majors. “Where it falls hardest is on low-income parents, those who have the least amount of money to arm their kids with tools for success.”
But behind that dour finding lies a question that’s as equally relevant as the numbers themselves: Why? Why has back-to-school shopping gotten so expensive all of a sudden? A canvass of the experts yields some surprising answers.
First off, it’s not because back-to-school items themselves have gotten more expensive. In fact, the price of many basic supplies such as notebooks and pens has actually declined over the long term. According to Neil Saunders, a retail analyst with GlobalData, that’s a function of increased competition and the easy price comparisons that are possible with the internet. “If you look at most retailers like Target or Staples, everyone has offers and deals,” he said. “These are headline grabbers and they’re keenly priced.”
Nor are the increased costs attributable to inflation. Over the 11 years that CIS has followed back-to-school costs, it’s seen them significantly outpace inflation over that period. The culprit is actually technology—specifically, all the new digital gadgets that weren’t even around 10 years ago, but have since worked their way onto students’ supply lists.
“The technology that kids are asked to bring to school is absolutely increasing,” Majors said. “The school supply list is changing as we go more digital,” added Rodney Sides, vice chair and U.S. leader, retail and distribution for Deloitte. “Folks are spending more on electronics and gadgets”—laptops and Chromebooks, for example—“and making sure you have students wired and focused on the technology side.”
Though only a minority of parents is currently buying such devices, these purchases still have a significant effect on the data because electronics are many times more expensive than anything else on the back-to-school shopping list. For example, while 98 percent of respondents to Deloitte’s 2017 Back to School Survey said they’re buying traditional school supplies (backpacks, lunch boxes and so on), those goods added up to an average outlay of $104. By contrast, though only 18 percent and 23 percent said they were going to purchase computers and electronic gadgets, respectively, the combined average outlay for those items was $561.
Parents, of course, have little choice but to comply with a school list that gets longer all the time. “These days, there’s much more that’s required of students and their parents,” said Courtney Jespersen, consumer savings expert at NerdWallet. “A pen and a pencil simply aren’t enough.” She advises parents to comparison shop and ask about student discounts to help defray costs.
But schools aren’t always the impetus behind these expensive technology purchases. Oftentimes, it’s simply the parent taking it upon him- or herself to get them. “Parents will buy their kids iPads and that inflates the basket and by quite a lot,” Saunders said. “There’s a lot of pressure to buy these things, even though they are not essential.” Saunders believes that digital doodads bought at back-to-school time are a mix of “items that people have to have—and also feel they have to have.”
In other words, many parents will spring for a device like a tablet solely from an anxiety over their kid being left behind in the technology race. “A lot of this is driven by the desire to really give your kids the best possible chance,” Saunders said, “[but] a lot of that, with the focus on technology, is quite expensive.