With daughters, Danielle, 11, and Gabriel, 9, in tow, Jennifer Wagner of Toledo made the rounds in Toledo last week in her annual summer hunt for school supplies.
A “cost-conscious” shopper, Mrs. Wagner got what she needed, but she also was determined to get the best deal for her money Thursday as she headed to Schoolbelles Uniform Store on Secor Road.
Her quest to pick up good deals on school supplies ended up taking her to OfficeMax, Schoolbelles, Target, and even home improvement retailer Menard’s.
“We’re watching the sales,” said Mrs. Wagner, who added she probably will spend a little more this year on supplies because her daughters are changing schools.
“We’ve been all over the place. We were here [at Schoolbelles] once before just checking out prices and we went someplace else to check out the prices. OfficeMax has the better deals on supplies, but Menard’s also has supplies on sale.
“Why does Menard’s even have school supplies?” she wondered aloud.
With total back-to-school and back-to-college spending expected to reach $72.5 billion this year, according to the National Retail Federation, it is probably more reasonable to ask what retailer won’t have school supplies to sell this year.
School supplies are like food: generally must-have items.
But while retailers will be doing their best this year to get people such as Mrs. Wagner to part with their shopping dollars, overall it could be a disappointing summer for many merchants.
The retail federation is predicting the average family will spend $634.78 on schools supplies, an 8 percent drop from last year’s average of $688.62.
“The good news is that consumers are spending, but they are doing so with cost and practicality in mind. Having splurged on their growing children’s needs last year, parents will ask their kids to reuse what they can for the upcoming school season,” said Matthew Shay, retail federation president and chief executive officer.
A shopper from Sylvania named Kim, who declined to give her last name, said she planned to use that strategy with her two middle-school boys.
“My younger one gets the hand-me-downs from the older one — always, always,” she said.
“They might use the same backpack,” she added. “I’ll ask them and give them the option, but this is their second year of reusing them, so if they wanted a new one, I’d be OK with that. I’d let them pick out a new one, but I’ll ask them if they want to keep what they have,” she said.
Michael Niemira, chief economist for the International Council of Shopping Centers, is pessimistic about this year’s spending.
He is predicting that the average household will spend $285 on back-to-school shopping this year, a 5 percent decrease from 2012 when spending per household averaged $300. (His group includes fewer items in its survey than the retail foundation.)
In a positive note, a survey by the shopping center council and Goldman Sachs found that 42 percent of households plan to increase spending and 45 percent will spend about the same as last year.
But many of those shoppers will be cost-conscious.
“Consumers typically view back-to-school merchandise as an essential expenditure, which is likely a key reason that so many consumers plan to increase spending this year,” Mr. Niemira said. “However, this year consumers plan to do considerably more of that shopping at discount stores (90 percent vs. 83 percent in 2012) than anywhere else, followed by office supply and traditional department stores,” he said.
Discount retailer Meijer Inc., expects to draw a lot of back-to-school shoppers. The Michigan-based chain surveyed its customers this year and found most planned to start shopping earlier than before and expected to continue shopping right up to the start of school in order to get the best bargains possible.
Forty percent of those surveyed reported that they would have their back-to-school shopping completed before the start of the school year In addition, 90 percent of shoppers said they planned to spend the same or more than they did last year, with an increased emphasis on electronics such as ereaders and tablets, apparel, and art supplies.
Meijer competitor the Kroger Co. is hoping consumers will add it to their list of potential places to buy back-to-school supplies.
The supermarket chain’s new Marketplace store in Lambertville now carries clothing, along with large supplies of notebooks, pencils, and folders. It hopes to lure shoppers through back-to-school advertisements that will run this week.
“It’s going to be exciting to see, with all the new things we offer, just where it’s all going to go. We are having some great sales on paper, pencil, pens and that’s going to just draw some interest for people,” said Doug DeArmond, manager. “But we won’t get a feel for it until sometime next month.”
When the August data do come in, Britt Beemer, president of retail consulting firm America’s Research Group, predicts they will show a downturn of between 0.5 and 2 percent in back-to-school shopping compared to last year.
Overall, “it’s not going to be pretty” for most retailers, he said.
“The number of people who said they would delay back-to-school shopping until Labor Day was at an all-time high this year,” Mr. Beemer said. “These are people who are waiting until Labor Day in order to get as many deals as they can and they are just buying the basics right now.”
That seems about right to Randy Rowles, manager of Elder-Beerman in West Toledo.
“We’re selling a lot of our clearance now. They’re buying [sale items] because it’s an extra 50 percent off and they know they will be able to get bargains now and then maybe spend a little more later for what they really want,” he said.
“I’d say it’s a normal, typical start so far to the season,” Mr. Rowles said. “Clearance first, then a little bit of the fall merchandise has come in and people are spending just enough to make sure they get their preferred color and size.”
Courtney Chu, of Toledo, was among those shopping in July to make sure she got what her children needed and wanted.
“I hope to be done with it all soon, get it out of the way. I feel like [if you wait] until the last minute, you can’t find what you’re looking for with either the uniforms or the supplies,” she said.
Maggie Stein, manager of Schoolbelles, said she tries to advise customers in early July to shop early for the coming year, otherwise they could get shut out of color and size choices.
“We don’t really have sales, so it doesn’t pay to wait,” she said.
But while sales have been steady, it appears most consumers are waiting. The store expects to be very busy this week because several schools will open in mid-August.
Mr. Beemer, of America’s Research Group, sees at least one bright spot.
"Parents will spend on shoes,” he said.
That would be good news for Tom Curavo, owner of the Stride Rite Bootery in Sylvania.
Mr. Curavo closed his second store on Airport Highway last year, which boosted the sales of his store on Monroe Street. But back-to-school shopping is a critical time for Mr. Curavo, whose store deals heavily in children’s shoes.
It is his “Christmas season,” with August sales totaling nearly 20 percent of annual sales. As a result, on Thursday he began a big weekend sale for bargain hunters — buy a pair, get a pair at 50 percent off — to attract back-to-school shoppers, which he said began coming around mid-July.
Anticipating consumer desires, Mr. Curavo loaded up this year on Sperry brand shoes, a hot item particularly with young girls.
“Sperry’s were around 20 years ago but they are probably more popular with kids today than they ever were before. It’s what young girls in particular really want. And last year, boys wanted Sperry’s too,” he said.
One reason so many experts are predicting more delayed purchasing and bargain hunting this year could be the rising cost of school supplies.
According to Huntington Bank’s eighth annual Backpack index, the costs for K-12 school supplies this year rose an average of 7.3 percent compared to just a 1.4 percent rise in the broader consumer price index.
Huntington Bank said parents can expect to pay $576 for supplies for elementary school students, a 5.3 percent increase compared to 2012; $762 for middle school students, a 5.3 percent increase, and $1,223 for high school students, a 9.5 percent increase.
Many high school students, Huntington predicts, will head to classes this year with a mid-priced tablet computer that will add $300 to their school lists and increase a high schooler’s average cost by 36 percent.
Andy Dempster, manager of the MacCafe store in Toledo, said that while Apple iPads are good sellers, he hasn’t seen many parents coming in to buy iPads for their high school children.
“I know people have toyed with that idea, but I’m not a proponent of that,” he said.
A regular computer, he said, would be better for completing homework assignments because they are better for writing compared to tablets.
Contact Jon Chavez at: email@example.com or 419-6128.