GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Everything seems more expensive these days. Parents hitting the stores for back-to-school essentials should expect nothing less.
A study from the National Retail Federation expects families to spend more than ever as students head back to class. But why? Data from the NRF shows inflation isn’t the only factor.
A nationwide survey conducted in July found that the average American household will spend $890 this year on school supplies, up $26 from 2022 and the highest since NRF started producing the survey more than 20 years ago.
Data from the NRF shows that added technology is the primary factor for the rise in school supply costs.
The 2019 survey estimated an average cost of $697 for households with K-12 students — nearly $200 less than the 2023 figure. However, the 2019 survey also shows that households spent an average of $203 on electronics for school. That figure in 2023 was $326 — more than 60% of the total increase.
Katherine Cullen, the NRF vice president of industry and consumer insights, says it’s important to note that 2019 was the year before the pandemic.
“We know the pandemic changed a lot when it came to learning environments and the type of products that people needed,” Cullen said.
According to the survey, 69% of back-to-school shoppers expect to purchase some form of electronics for their K-12 students. That is up from 65% last year and 54% in 2019. Shoppers are primarily focused on laptops (51%), tablets (36%) and calculators (29%).
Electronics spending alone is expected to reach $15.2 billion this season — more than one-third of total back-to-school sales.
“People are spending more, more people are buying, and (costs are up) for these big-ticket items,” Cullen explained.
Will that trend continue or will things slow down? Cullen says the next few years will show how often people feel the need to replace or upgrade their electronics.
“This idea that every child now needs their own device and an ability to focus and learn,” Cullen said. “We know in a lot of areas people are holding onto their devices for a longer period of time, so with all of the new electronics purchasing this year, we will have to see how that plays out.”
What about sticker shock? According to the NRF survey, 67% of back-to-school shoppers have noticed higher prices this summer. The biggest surprise is in the cost of clothes.
Across four different categories, 77% of shoppers noticed higher prices for clothing and accessories. That’s compared to 67% for traditional school supplies, 59% for shoes and 58% for electronics.
The rising prices also have parents doing more to find better deals.
“It’s clear that people are noticing higher prices. That’s not to say inflation doesn’t continue to be on people’s minds. What has changed is how they are dealing with it,” Cullen said.
According to the NRF survey, 45% of shoppers are now planning to compare prices to other stores and seek out sales. That’s up from 28% and 30% respectively in 2019. Shoppers are also more likely to buy generic or store-brand products (24% in 2019, 39% in 2023), use coupons (20% in 2019, 27% in 2023), and reuse old items instead of replacing them (13% in 2019, 21% in 2023).
Data also shows that many households believe they are in better financial shape than they did during the Great Recession. Forty-five percent of households plan to shop at discount stores to find school supplies. That figure is up from 40% in 2022, but down from 75% in 2009.
“Online and department stores remain the top destination for shoppers, but we are seeing a focus on discount retailers this season,” Cullen said. “This is well below where we saw this data in 2008, 2009 through 2013, really, during the Great Recession and its fallout. So this tells us that consumers are looking for value, they are shopping around, but they are not feeling pushed fully into discount channels.”