KTEP - El Paso, Texas

Families Splurge On Clothes And Electronics In Likely Record Back-To-School Spree

Jul 27, 2021
Originally published on July 27, 2021 11:48 pm

Susan Curp was on a quick run to the store when her 13-year-old daughter spotted something she couldn't pass up: back-to-school sales. Notebooks covered with llamas and palm trees. Pens, pencils and even a case for the scented sanitizer — sparkly, of course.

"I think she's excited to ... get organized and just have a little more normalcy in her life," Curp says.

Curp's daughter has a twin brother who's far less into back-to-school shopping. But he, too, will have to do it — because a lot has changed during the year and a half of the coronavirus pandemic.

"All the kids their age — a lot of them have had a huge growth spurt," Curp says.

Last year's back-to-school shopping season was all about desks and headphones. This year, shopping for clothes is through the roof. Not only have children grown, but they also want the latest styles, or maybe a physical symbol of a fresh start.

That has set back-to-school shopping on a path to a new record, expected to top $37 billion. The National Retail Federation estimates that families will spend an average of $849 on back-to-school items, almost $60 more than last year, when people rushed to set up classrooms at home. College students and their families are expected to spend an average of $1,200.

The industry is watching back-to-school shopping as a key bellwether for economic recovery. Of all the retailers, department stores and clothing stores had the most disastrous 2020. Now they're gearing up for their best year yet.

Most families are stocking up on new outfits in preparation for a return to in-person school. But some are still planning for the possibility of remote schooling, or at least some elements of it.

Once again, electronics are the key driver of record-level back-to-school spending. People are buying more laptops, calculators, tablets and headphones.

Also, younger children are more likely to get a new smartphone this year, says the National Retail Federation's Katherine Cullen: "Maybe a purchase that the family held off on last year as kids were at home, but now they want their child to be able to ... make contact throughout the day."

Some families already got a head start on shopping for the school year when Amazon, Walmart, Target and others held huge summer sales. Now, parents are getting a new financial boost from the government: an increased child tax credit of up to $3,000 for school-age children.

For Miguel Ferreira, who lives outside Boston, that extra money means he might let his 11-year-old daughter join the softball team.

"We can actually consider that rather than going, 'Sweetheart, the gear for that is going to be $100, you know. There's no way we can afford that,' " he says. "There's some wiggle room now, whereas before there was none."

This, of course, is great news for the sports shops that want to sell Ferreira that softball gear.

The expanded tax credit goes hand in hand with another contributor to record-level back-to-school spending: inflation. Ferreira says he has noticed higher prices for everything from stationery to clothes.

"A pair of pants that was previously $50 was now $80," he says.

Ferreira needed those pants for his teenage son, who grew taller during the pandemic, just like Curp's twins. Lucky for Curp, she lives in Austin, Texas, where it's warmer. So her shopping-averse son might just keep wearing his old shorts — for a little bit longer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Last year, it was all about desks and headphones. This year, it's time for T-shirts and sneakers. Americans are expected to spend a record $37 billion on back-to-school shopping this year. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: A few days ago, Susan Curp was on a quick run to the store when her 13-year-old daughter spotted something new - back-to-school sales. And she got so excited to hunt for cute new stationery.

SUSAN CURP: She enjoys the notebooks and the pencils and the llamas and - you know, you got to have a notebook cover with llamas.

SELYUKH: Curp's daughter has a twin brother who is far less excited about shopping for the school year. But here's the thing. He will have to do it because a lot has changed in the year-and-a-half of the pandemic.

CURP: They pretty much had their big growth spurt since they were out of school. And all the kids their age - a lot of them have had a huge growth spurt.

SELYUKH: Shopping for clothes is through the roof. Children have grown, and they also want the latest styles and maybe that physical symbol of a fresh start. Of all the retailers, department and clothing stores had the most disastrous 2020. But now they're gearing up for their best year yet. The industry is watching back-to-school shopping as a key bellwether. Here's Target executive Christina Hennington on the latest earnings call.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTINA HENNINGTON: We're planning for one of our biggest back-to-school and college seasons ever.

SELYUKH: The National Retail Federation estimates that this year, families will spend an average of $850 on back-to-school supplies. That's almost $60 more than last year, when people rushed to set up classrooms at home.

KATHERINE CULLEN: Last year, for context, was already a record.

SELYUKH: Katherine Cullen tracks shopping trends at the National Retail Federation. She says last year's record was driven by furniture and electronics, this year's by clothes and shoes. But there's another item that tops them all, and it's kind of surprising because it's more electronics. People are still buying laptops, calculators, tablets, headphones.

CULLEN: We saw younger children in elementary school were a little more likely to be getting a smartphone this year. So maybe a purchase that the family held off on last year as kids were at home, but now they want their child to be able to call them, be able to make contact throughout the day.

SELYUKH: Most families are preparing for a return to in-person school, but some are still planning for the possibility of remote schooling. Demand for pricey electronics is helping drive the record spending. Another factor were huge summer sales by Amazon, but also Walmart, Target and others. Now parents are also getting a new financial boost from the government - an increased child tax credit of up to $3,000 for school-age children. For Miguel Ferreira in Massachusetts, that extra money meant he might let his 11-year-old daughter join the softball team.

MIGUEL FERREIRA: We can actually consider that rather than going, sweetheart, you know, the gear for that is going to be 100 bucks. You know, there's no way we can afford that and still put food on the table.

SELYUKH: This, of course, is great news for retailers that want to sell Ferreira that softball gear. And it goes hand in hand with one other economic contributor to record-level back-to-school spending - inflation. Ferreira says he's noticed higher prices for everything, from stationery to clothes.

FERREIRA: There's also a lot fewer sales on the nicer, more heavy duty, higher quality clothes. A pair of pants that was previously 50 bucks is now 80.

SELYUKH: Ferreira needed those pants for his teenage son, who grew taller during the pandemic, just like Curp's twins. Lucky for Curp, she lives in warmer Texas, so her shopping-averse child might just keep wearing his old shorts for a little bit.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DORENA'S "THE ALL-CLEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.