DeKALB – Every year a student in elementary or middle school may buy a box of crayons or copy paper – and never use it.
A company like School Tool Box will sell truckloads of supplies such as copy paper that company representatives know wind up in a teacher’s storeroom, said Doug Stice, president of the Sycamore-based school supply business.
“When a kindergartner is asked to bring in a ream of copy paper, we know that is not for his desk,” he said.
As the state tightens education budgets and schools ask families to provide more supplies, companies such as School Tool Box are working with schools to attempt to lower the number of supplies their customers buy.
Families are expected to spend an average of $634 on supplies, apparel and electronics, compared with the almost $688 average spent last year, according to a 2013 National Retail Federation survey. The survey polled 5,635 consumers in early July to study back-to-school spending trends.
The survey found some parents may not purchase as much this year, and instead reuse supplies purchased last year and shop more carefully this year.
Classroom supplies, clothes and other items typically bought during the back-to-school shopping season were in high demand last year, said Peter Gill, communications director for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. The economy was sluggish before 2012, but improved last year, he said.
“I think, given the opportunity to spend more, people would love to see their kids go to school in a new backpack or new sweater,” Gill said.
The back-to-school shopping season is a crucial time for businesses as they help teachers stock their classrooms and students find items for extracurricular activities. Gill said today’s students are buying items that weren’t used before, like cellphones and other electronic devices.
More than 80 percent of shoppers said economic conditions will change their spending in some way, while 36.6 percent said they would save money by shopping online, according to the National Retail Federation.
Stice said online shopping is becoming a popular option for parents.
“If they can go on to their computer and click a few times and have everything they need for their children, they do it,” Stice said.
In the past two years, School Tool Box began shipping school supplies directly to homes. Last year, it experienced 500 percent growth in that service, said Gregory Howells, chief operating officer of the company. It also ships supplies to almost 1,000 schools across the nation.
The back-to-school shopping season is also a big deal for college students. Jody Boardman, general manager of the Village Commons Bookstore in DeKalb, said late summer tends to be the biggest shopping season for the store. She finds face-to-face customer service helps her compete with online retailers.
“We are real people, and we try to offer a great service, which is worth something,” Boardman said.
The National Retail Federation survey found college students and their parents will also spend less this year, with the average amount being $836, down from the $907 average last year.
A store like Village Commons Bookstore doesn’t primarily focus on selling school supplies, however. Boardman said other items, like apparel and electronics, will be sold throughout the year.
Same goes for families with younger students. Gill said even several weeks after school starts, students will be shopping for items they need and want, and teachers may require different supplies.
“They learn things on the first day about things they didn’t know they needed,” he said. “Things that don’t come to mind in August. “
By the numbers
$26.7 billion: Total spending on back-to-school shopping expected for this year.
$72.5 billion: Combined spending on back-to-school and back-to-college spending expected for this year.
$634: The average amount families are expected to spend on school supplies, apparel and electronics this year.
$836: The average amount college students and parents are expected to spend for back-to-school shopping this year.
Source: National Retail Federation