During a trip to Target just before school started last year, I decided to take a trip down memory lane through the aisles of school supplies. I was yearning for the feeling that a fresh start to a new school year brings, and longing for the days when I got to pick out a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper and matching rainbow, unicorn-emblazoned pencils.
But instead of getting lost in crowded aisles of nostalgia, I discovered the 10th circle of hell.
“You need 24 glue sticks!” one woman snapped as her elementary-age child looked for wide-ruled notebooks in a sea of college-ruled notebooks.
Other parents sifted through bins of binders, pens and pencil boxes, marking off each item on a list as if they were on a scavenger hunt. “They’re out of black Expo dry erase markers?” another parent said. “We’ll have to go to another store for that.”
Gone are the days when the only supplies kids needed were two No. 2 pencils and a notebook. Today’s lists are jaw-droppingly long and specific: 300 Ticonderoga pencils, five reams of printer paper, three packs of Post-it notes, two boxes of Kleenex, one potted plant, and the lists go on.
Back-to-school shopping is big business for retailers, and for many parents, an even bigger headache.
During this year’s back-to-school shopping season, parents shelled out an estimated $662 for their elementary school students’ supplies and activity fees, $1,001 for middle school students and $1,489 for high schoolers, according to an annual study by Ohio-based Huntington Bank.
In response to growing frustration over these detailed lists, more parents are purchasing their PTA’s prepackaged supply kit. The kits are a timesaver, but can also be more expensive and don’t let kids choose the items filling their backpacks.
I was delighted to learn that my daughter’s school offered the supply kit option and would be delivered to her classroom with everything she needs.
I placed an order online for $44.35 last spring and spent the last half of summer happily ignoring the school supplies sales. That is until my daughter found out what I had done.
Stores vs. online
Shopping for school supplies is the undeniable sign that a new school year is almost here. A fresh start is one thing, but shopping for school supplies right after July 4th feels like an assault on summer.
During a search for sunscreen a month ago, we found ourselves on a routine Target run. As we passed the harried parents and kids navigating their lists and shelves of sold-out supplies, I was feeling downright smug, and wondered why more parents didn’t opt for the supply kit.
Then my daughter asked, “When do I get to buy my supplies?”
“I ordered them online and you’ll get them at school,” I told her.
“But I wanted to pick out my own,” she whined. “Can I at least pick out a new backpack?”
I reminded her that the backpack she got last year has a lifetime warranty and when she takes it to college, it will be vintage. She thought I was joking.
It turns out there are parents out there who actually enjoy trekking with their kids to the store and loading up their carts with new supplies. Those parents are the reason that the tradition remains a stronghold in an increasingly online retail industry. More than 70 percent of last year’s back-to-school purchases were made in person in brick-and-mortar stores, according to market research firm the NPD Group.
“I love school supply shopping,” said Christine Skluzacek of Montgomery, Minn. “I wait until the middle of July, when everything is in, but not already picked over. Then I get home, organize everything and we get to enjoy looking at it throughout the month of August.”
Other parents (like me) find the convenience of ordering supplies online too good to pass up. Sixty-five percent of people who had the option to purchase a prepackaged school supply kit have done so at least once.
“I blissfully walked past all the school supplies while out shopping, knowing that mine would all be packed in nice little boxes for my two kids,” said Woodbury mom Amie Fry. “Running around to many different stores wasn’t my idea of a good time. The kids loved opening the kits and seeing all the school goodies inside.”
The ritual lives on
Last week, I found myself back in the school supply aisles, this time with my daughter in tow thanks to a hefty dose of “mom guilt.” With her school’s supply list in hand, she went up and down the aisles searching for crayons, markers and pencils to mark the excitement of the new school year.
About a quarter of the items on her list were sold out, or we couldn’t find the quantity or brand needed.
St. Paul teacher Alison Hakseth says that when lists specify a brand, it’s usually for good reason. Store brand crayons can be too waxy and cheaper pencils break easily. Quantity isn’t as important. And yes, young students really do use that much glue.
“No teacher will complain about a 10-pack of markers when an eight-pack is on the list,” she said. “As a teacher, I appreciate anything you send in.”
I watched my daughter’s joy as she made her way through her list and talked about who might be in her class and what she’d learn. Even though she didn’t get the Shopkins notebook she wanted, she was giddy picking out stickers to decorate the plastic pencil box that arrived in her kit.
Speaking of the kit, it’s as glorious as I imagined it would be. A beacon of carefree back-to-school shopping and now a donation made to a family who needs it more than we do.
Hakseth said many students in her school can’t afford supplies at all, so she spends a few hundred of her own dollars each summer shopping school supply sales.
With that in mind, my daughter and I took turns tossing glue sticks into the cart for the donation pile.
She was in heaven. And so was I.