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Back-to-school shopping: What’s different amid COVID and how to avoid school supply shortages
Parents, take note. Getting your children ready for the new school year is expected to cost more this year. And getting all the items on the school supply list may be harder. While many started last school year remotely, more students are heading to physical classrooms – meaning they’ll need backpacks, lunchboxes and new clothes. Spending on school supplies is expected to reach new records, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey. Families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average of $848.90 on school items, which is $59 more than last year and $152 more than 2019.“Back-to-school shopping is always a scramble, and this is the school year students and their families need to prep for anything and everything,” Kristin McGrath, a shopping expert and editor at deal website RetailMeNot, told USA TODAY. ►Sales tax holidays 2021: Shop tax-free for clothes, school supplies in 11 states this weekend►Back to school 2021: How we’re shopping for the new school yearAnd this year there’s more of a time crunch with looming school supply shortages, due in part to supply chain issues and the ongoing chip shortage. Here’s what to know about back-to-school shopping and how you can best prepare. Shop early to avoid possible school supply shortagesLast year as more students started the school year virtually, desks, chairs and laptops were the hard-to-locate items.Some school supplies could be harder to find and may sell out this year – and not only on the eve of the first day of school. Backpacks, shoes and some gadgets are expected to be this year’s shortage items, experts say.Analytics company Profitero surveyed 500 consumers this week and found that 61% of those who started their back-to-school shopping have run into issues with products being out of stock or unavailable.Naveen Jaggi, president of retail advisory services at brokerage firm JLL, told USA TODAY that he expects it to be a strong back-to-school season despite challenges with inventory.“There’s a real reason to believe that demand will outstrip the full supply of all the core products in the immediate four to six weeks,” he said.Mental health a concern as children return to classroomsExperts say returning to school in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic will require special care for a child’s mental and social development needs.STAFF VIDEO, USA TODAYBeware of rising school supply costs, fewer markdownsMore than half of back-to-school shoppers from the retail federation’s survey of 7,700 consumers said they already started shopping for the school year as of early July. RetailMeNot predicts 26% of people will plan to begin their back-to-school shopping in August.Aside from the risk of items selling out, experts say parents should also consider shopping early to combat the possibility of rising costs.Not all parents have that option yet. Profitero found in its survey that half of the consumers surveyed said their school districts had not released back to supply lists. “All signals suggest that price inflation and shortages will only increase the deeper we go into the back-to-school season,” said Mike Black, Profitero chief marketing officer. “Especially as it relates to pricing since there is no incentive for retailers to lower prices. So the longer people wait to buy, the more likely they will be upset with the results.”Natalie Kotlyar, national leader of the retail and consumer products practice at BDO, a financial services firm, said with high demand and the potential for shortages, consumers will be more willing to pay full price.“The message for consumers is shop early and take advantage of any markdowns you can find because there won’t be many,” Kotlyar said. “Procrastination this year will cost you.”Total back-to-school spending is expected to reach a record $37.1 billion, up from $33.9 billion last year, the retail federation said.►Sephora at Kohl’s locations are opening: See which stores are getting a makeover and when.►Reviewed recommendations: Where to get popular back to school supplies before they sell outSales tax holidays offer prime time to save on clothes, suppliesSales tax holidays are expected to drive shoppers in some states to get a handle on their shopping.According to the International Council of Shopping Centers survey, 38% plan their back-to-school shopping around specific promotional events and dates such as sales-tax holidays and sales.Eleven states have sales tax holidays this weekend with two states – Connecticut and Massachusetts – offering tax breaks later in August. Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, West Virginia already held tax holidays.Florida kicked off its 10-day tax holiday on July 31, and tax-free shopping starts Friday in Iowa, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Arkansas’ two-tax holiday starts Saturday, and Maryland’s tax-free week begins Sunday.Not every town and county will participate in the sales tax holidays, nor will every item be tax-free. Criteria vary by state and in some areas, local taxes will still apply.Shopping tip: Tax-free shopping isn’t only in stores but also online. ►TikTok school hacks: These back to school TikTok hacks will help with lunches, dorm organization and more►Free college: Target joins Walmart in paying for college for employees; free books also includedOnline shopping still will be popular for school shoppingRetailMeNot found in its survey that 52% of respondents said they’ll be doing back-to-school shopping in-store this year, with the rest planning to shop online, though this could shift with concerns over the delta variant.Jaggi, whose company is the largest third-party manager of retail properties in the nation, said consumers have flocked back to stores this spring. He said foot traffic at stores nationwide is about 7 to 8% less than pre-pandemic levels and in some parts of the country is “essentially back” to before the pandemic.”They realized that part of the shopping experience was not the buy but shopping physically.”He expects curbside pickup, which became increasingly more popular during the pandemic, to continue to be an appealing option for parents.Shopping list: Computers or clothes?Despite so many families buying new computers last year, technology purchases are expected to be strong again in 2021.According to the retail federation’s survey, back-to-school shoppers plan to spend more in every category, but electronics and clothing saw the biggest increases with $21 more on average on electronics $19 more on clothes this year compared with 2020.”When it comes to back-to-school shopping, parents are probably contending with a bigger-than-usual shopping list of catch-up purchases,” RetailMeNot’s McGrath told USA TODAY. “Any families that let pajamas, socks and random office supplies slide during remote learning are likely needing to shop for stylish clothes that fit, shoes, new notebooks, new binders and backpacks.”Pitney Bowes found that electronics are as popular as school supplies, and parents who are Generation Z or Millennials will spend 10% more on electronics than in 2019. The technology company said it asked parents about spending plans versus 2019 when in-person learning was considered the default.However, the ongoing semiconductor chip shortage is expected to cause delays in getting electronics.“Check the estimated ship date before you hit ‘buy.’ It’s possible you might have to make do with an older laptop partway into the semester while you wait for the new laptop to arrive,” McGrath said.►Saving money is hard: How Ibotta makes it easier to get discounts and earn cash back on groceries, travel and more►Mask policies: Walmart, Target, Lowe’s, Kohl’s, Publix update mask policies for employees; encourage customers to wear masksFitting rooms may be open this yearIf you’re taking your children to the store, they’ll be able to try on clothes at more stores than last year. Last summer, many major retailers had fitting rooms closed amid the pandemic, including Target, Walmart and Kohl’s.Target reopened all of its fitting rooms by June 1, and Kohl’s reopened its rooms in May. Walmart also said in June that all of its fitting rooms were open.Returns also are being accepted at stores nationwide and remember Kohl’s takes most Amazon returns.Masks, hand sanitizer also make school supply listThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is calling for mask-wearing in schools among students, staff and teachers to protect children who aren’t eligible for vaccines, though many schools, particularly in Southern and Republican-led states, don’t have mask requirements as thousands of unvaccinated children return to classrooms. According to a recent survey conducted by OnePoll for Contigo, the water bottle brand, 44% of parents have a longer back-to-school list than in previous years due to the pandemic. Hand sanitizer and masks tied for the top items on lists at 67%. ►No school mask rules in Florida: Gov. DeSantis says he will ‘stand in the way’ of President Biden on COVID-19 restrictionsFree school supplies from IbottaIbotta, a popular cashback app and rewards platform, is offering free school supplies for millions of students while supplies last or until Aug. 31. (Learn more about Ibotta and how to use it here.)The items in the “Back to School Free for All” program include a Five Star three-subject notebook, 12-pack of Ticonderoga pencils, box of Kleenex tissues along with the ingredients for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.The rebate items, which combined have a value of up to $20, are available to purchase in-store and online at Walmart and online at Target, Instacart, H-E-B or Shipt.However, depending on where you shop, the items might not be 100% free after the rebates and could each cost a few cents. Ibotta bases the rebate on the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, which can vary.►What’s on your school supply list? 15 must-have school supplies your kids need, by grade►Save better, spend better: Money tips and advice delivered right to your inbox. Sign up hereContributing: Erin Richards and Ken Alltucker, USA TODAY.Follow USA TODAY reporter Kelly Tyko on Twitter: @KellyTyko. For shopping news, tips and deals, join us on our Shopping Ninjas Facebook group.