The cost of education


Back-to-school sales are already in full force at stores such as Target and Wal-Mart, and this year, families are
expected to spend more on school supplies and incidentals, shopping both in-store and online.

The National Retail Federation’s annual survey, conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, looks at shopping tendencies, anticipated spending and digital habits. Survey data says spending on back-to-school and college is expected to reach $68 billion.

On average, families plan to spend $97.74 on school supplies, the second-highest amount since the most recent
recession. Families with children in grades K to 12 will spend an average of $630 on back-to-school shopping, which includes non-school supply items.

“The back-to-school season is the second-largest sales-driving season of the year after the holidays for Target,” said a store representative.

Back-to-school shopping is not just about dollars, it’s also about logistics.

Wal-Mart estimates the amount of paper it stocks during back-to-school weighs as much as 525 Boeing 747s — or about 236,000 tons — and if all of the notebook binders it sold were laid end-to-end, they would stretch across the U.S. twice, according to a company spokesperson. Wal-Mart also anticipates selling 56,000 units of Elmer’s glue per hour during tax-free weekend, or approximately 16 units per second.

Although they did not provide figures, a Target representative said some of the top trending items for the back-to-school season this year are do-it-yourself arts-and-crafts supplies and apparel donned with characters from movies such as “Minions,” “Stars Wars,” “Frozen” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

The NRF survey shows that shoppers are also procrastinating more this year, with 30 percent of back-to-school shoppers likely to wait until just one or two weeks before school starts to begin shopping; this number is up from 25 percent last year. Perhaps to combat this trend, stores such as Target place huge advertisement signage on floor stands and suspend it from ceilings that help direct back-to-school shoppers to the school supplies aisles.

“Our back-to-school section at the back of the store [was] set on June 21 in early-start markets and on July 6 chainwide,” said a spokesperson for Target.

Back-to-school wardrobe shopping can be just as frenetic, but some institutions help ease that financial strain by requiring uniforms.

Of those K-12 students whose families were surveyed, 28 percent wear a uniform to school, the highest percentage in the survey’s history.

To alleviate some of the dollar drain associated with back-to-school needs, the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community Parent Association holds a uniform sale called the Non-Swap Shop, where parents donate lightly used school uniforms that are then sold at steep discounts in order to help make uniform shopping more cost effective, according to Vered Taylor, Beth Tfiloh Parent Association president.

Other schools remind families about the much anticipated tax-free week from Aug. 9 to Aug 15 via email. Tax-free-week sales at Wal-Mart are second only to the holiday season’s Black Friday in terms of sales, according to a spokesperson from the chain.

When NRF surveyed about college-student spending, the average amount spent increased to $899 for back-to-school shopping. In addition, the average college family plans to spend $126 on dorm or apartment furnishings, which adds up when there is an expected 31 percent of college students who will live in a dorm room or college housing this year, the highest percentage in the NRF survey history.

Spending doesn’t stop once college students reach campus. Target provides students at more than a dozen institutions, such as George Washington University, free shuttle bus service back and forth between Target stores and their campus housing.

More than 75 percent of college shoppers own a smartphone, and for the first time, more than 50 percent own a tablet according to NRF. And no wonder, since 40 percent of college shoppers say they plan to use a smartphone to research products and 46 percent plan to use a tablet to shop. NRF stated that nine in ten online shoppers plan to take advantage of free shipping, and that nearly half of online back-to-college shoppers will use ship-to-store or in-store pickup services.

The technology trends are not lost on Target; this year the retail giant will be beta testing its School List Assist Program. The phone and table application is said to curate a list of items most commonly purchased for grades K-8 and allow shoppers to purchase them online. After they have completed their choices, shoppers can either pick them up at a store or have them shipped directly to their homes.

Marc Shapiro contributed to this article.
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