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Akst: A new look at supplies and demands

It’s getting ugly out there.

Tempers are flaring, costs are fluctuating, regulations are tightening, supplies are dwindling, demands are escalating, and information is unclear.

Is this about running a business in a tough economy?

Nah. I’m talking about school supplies.

It’s hard to find somebody who doesn’t get at least a slight buzz from buying new stuff that fosters thinking, creativity and achievement. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say it’s one of the best parts of a new school year.

The blogosphere crackles with emotion about this annual ritual. I particularly liked the “Minding My Nest” blog that included nice photos and a recommendation to hydrate before beginning.

But the school supply ritual, in many places and in many ways, has spun out of control.

It’s hypocritical for me to write this because thanks to my wonderful spouse, our son’s supplies were prepackaged and waiting for us. But ironically, the prepackaged route also feels hypocritical because I would have HATED not being able to touch each potential item when I was a kid.

I also don’t mean this to be a critique of schools or teachers. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

For one thing, retailers have seized upon “back to school season” as a major revenue stream. What time frame defines this season? The Boston Globe said it runs article defined it as “July through September.”

A quarter of a year?

Besides that, “school supply” sales now mean nearly anything: Best Buy had a back-to-school sale a couple weeks ago on giant, flat-screen TVs.

Back-to-school spending is significant. The National Retail Federation said last year, because of “a combination of pent-up demand and a growing population of school children,” Americans went hog-wild.

The retail federation notes that this year it looks like things will cool off a bit, but American families are predicted to spend an average of $635 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics, down from $689 last year. Families spend about $91 on supplies for school-age children.

Back-to-school spending is expected to reach $26.7 billion, and if you add in back-to-college spending, the total comes to $72.5 billion.

That’s a lot of crayons. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (citing National Retail Federation data), back-to-school spending accounts for 11 percent of U.S. consumer spending each year, ranking it second to the holiday spending season.

I love school supplies, schools and teachers. But I think we as a society might be going overboard.

The lady who cuts our son’s hair talked of going to a store to find a specific type of glue stick. A friend of ours mentioned being unable to find the exact spiral notebook specified in the list.

One of my best friends, a local mom, puts this excess best.

“I’ve been to the school supply section three times. Once, I saw a woman nearly in tears,” she told me in a Facebook message. “Twice, other parents, without provocation from me, went off on a rant about how much they hated the process. It seems like clarity on the list is an issue (too much or too little).”

My friend’s son’s list includes pencils. “They had to be Ticonderoga and pre-sharpened. He had to have four plastic pocket folders with prongs, but they could only be blue. Blue was sold out at the two big-box stores as a result. He also needed four prongless plastic folders (one each of four colors). At the same time, ‘wipes’ appeared on the list. What kind? Baby, hand, antibacterial surface, flushable?”

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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