What To Expect From Back-To-School Shopping

What To Expect From Back-To-School Shopping

There is no set national date for the beginning of school in the United States because there is no set date to go back to school.

By late August, college students and many primary-school kids in the Southeastern U.S. have already gone back to school. But for the majority of America, students are still a few weeks away from the more traditional post-Labor Day start.

In the era of social media, there are many, many ways to track the beginning of the school year without looking at a district calendar. With Facebook or Instagram, it is pretty easy to track the appearance of #FirstDayofSchool posts with adorable kiddos holding up custom letterboards that note what grade they are entering. Or alternatively, in 2019, one could also follow the spread of #FirstDayofFreedom posts later in the morning, which generally feature an extremely cheerful suburban mom with a custom letterboard of her own, usually accompanied by a comically large amount of alcohol.

However, some people would prefer to use data to judge social trends as opposed to viral social media posts – and luckily, back-to-school shopping has plenty of that to serve up. While Christmas gets all the glory when it comes to consumer spending, the holidays aren’t the costliest time of year for parents. According to data from ThredUp, between haircuts, shoes, clothes and school supplies, 62 percent of parents report spending more on annual back-to-school shopping each year than they do on Black Friday.

Children nationwide will also be horrified to learn that back-to-school shopping triggers more spending per child than the average birthday celebration.

And to be clear, parents are not pinching pennies for holidays or birthdays: Americans spent close to $1 trillion (with a T) on Christmas last year alone, and we live in a world where a birthday cake for a 10-year-old’s party can be called a “statement piece” by a parent who paid $600 for it.

It’s just that the cost of going back to school is expensive – and getting more so each year. Standard spending is expected to hit a record high in 2019 – and that’s even without accounting for the non-standard spending.

A Big Year for Selling School Supplies

According to National Retail Federation (NRF) forecasts earlier this summer, 2019 will be yet another record-breaking year of spending for parents, with K-12 families expected to spend an average of $696.70, a $12 increase from 2018 and more than the $687.72 record set in 2017. Those who are sending kids off to college can expect to spend $976.78, up by about $34 from last year and an increase from the 2017 record of $969.88.

“Consumers are in a strong position given the nation’s growing economy, and we see this reflected in what they say they will spend on back-to-class items this year,” said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the retailers’ group. “We’re expecting record spending and retailers are ready to provide students with all the items they need for a successful school year.”

All in, according to the NRF, American consumers will spend a total of $80.7 billion on back-to-school shopping. Despite the record-breaking spend per family, this year’s total will not exceed last year’s record $82.8 billion. According to the NRF, that discrepancy stems from the fact that fewer households are sending children through primary school.

Another interesting and emerging trend this year, according to Shay, is that teenagers and pre-teens are less passive actors in this annual batch of retail spend, and are increasingly expected to contribute funds to preparing for the school year.

“Members of Generation Z are clearly becoming more involved with back-to-school purchasing decisions rather than leaving the choices up to Mom and Dad,” Shay said. “Over the years, both teens and pre-teens are spending more of their own money on back-to-school items.”

As for the progress of the sale season, despite the fact that less than half of the nation’s schools are currently in session, about half of the back-to-school shopping has already happened.

About half of all shoppers, according to the NRF, specifically saved their back-to-school shopping for the Amazon Prime day event in hopes of capturing better value, given the average level of expense families tend to face.

And then there is the less-than-average spending.

The More Unexpected Side of Back-to-School Shopping 

While it might be somewhat hard to imagine having a “keeping up with the Joneses” mindset when it comes to back-to-school shopping, according to new data from NerdWallet, that is exactly what is happening.

And yes, it is partly social media’s fault.

Among parents, 60 percent report that their children are influenced by peers or social media when making their back-to-school wish lists, and about half (51 percent) say they typically go along with their kids’ social media-driven wishes when purchasing products.

“The whole notion of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ is amplified on social media, with an entire army of influencers telling your child what they ‘need’ to have this year. That can make back-to-school shopping a real headache,” said Kelsey Sheehy, NerdWallet’s personal finance expert.

The study also found that by and large, parents know they are overspending: 52 percent report feeling strongly pressured to purchase items that cost more than they planned to spend, mostly to appease their social media-influenced offspring. Many plan to withstand the pressure, with 50 percent reporting they did not plan to splurge this year.

However, it does bear noting that 93 percent of parents report splurging on back-to-school shopping last year. That either means that many, many people have decided to shop very differently this year, or that a lot of people tend to overestimate their actual willpower before they go shopping.

And given a wave of recent reports about dorm rooms, we are guessing it is more a case of the latter than the former.

On the low end, outfitting the average dorm room can run into the hundreds of dollars, between bedding, supplies, storage and various small appliances. But in the era when college-age influencers are running mini media empires out of their dorm rooms – well, some people are spending more. A lot more.

According to reports, paying interior designers $2,000 to create Instagram-worthy dorm rooms decorated with color-coordinated rugs, ottomans and unique accent pieces like white antlers is not unheard of.

Because can one truly learn about literature or philosophy in a room without white antlers?

Interior designer Dawn Thomas told Refinery29 in an interview that in fairness, hiring an interior designer for a dorm room doesn’t necessarily have to be a massive splurge. “I’ve done rooms that cost $500, and I’ve done rooms that added up to $2,000,” she said. “Decorating doesn’t have to do with wealth: It is about creating an expensive look.”

An expensive and photogenic look. For example, one can secure a pair of cast-iron deer antlers in a variety of colors from Amazon for less than $15.

But no matter how much money is spent on dorm room decorations or more mainstream school supplies in the coming weeks, one fact is becoming increasingly unavoidable.

The summer is all but over.

And when the last of the hot weather dispenses in the next few weeks, the annual retail rush season – which starts with back to school and ends with New Year’s – will be well underway.



The How We Shop Report, a PYMNTS collaboration with PayPal, aims to understand how consumers of all ages and incomes are shifting to shopping and paying online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research builds on a series of studies conducted since March, surveying more than 16,000 consumers on how their shopping habits and payments preferences are changing as the crisis continues. This report focuses on our latest survey of 2,163 respondents and examines how their increased appetite for online commerce and digital touchless methods, such as QR codes, contactless cards and digital wallets, is poised to shape the post-pandemic economy.