School’s about to start and the return to in-person classes is fraught with uncertainty: to mask or not, and what about vaccinations? But everyone needs back-to-school supplies, a yearly ritual that itself will be different among the ongoing pandemic.
Global shipping delays, high shipping costs, labor shortages and coronavirus outbreaks in countries that produce the goods means shoppers might not find all the pens, pencils, notebooks, backpacks, clothes and sneakers that they want. And it’ll likely cost more if they do.
“The demand for school supplies this year is just increasing exponentially,” said Patrick Penfield, a professor of supply chain practice at the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University. “A lot of it is due to the U.S. opening all the schools for the new year.”
Penfield said prices could be 5% to 10% higher than last year. He and Nikki Baird, the Denver-based vice president of retail innovation at Aptos, both warn shoppers against waiting for discounts because supplies are lower and it could get more difficult to find what they need.
“I’ve already seen retailers moving Halloween and holiday (merchandise) out onto the sales floor and we’re not even halfway through the back-to-school shopping season yet,” Baird said. “That says a lot about how little inventory there is out there.”
Marilynn Armenta of Commerce City couldn’t wait to buy school supplies because her granddaughter starts school next week. As she loaded bags into her car at a Walmart in Englewood, she said she had everything she needed.
“It did take a few stores to find everything. You won’t find it all in one store,” Armenta said.
The prices went up, “but not by much,” Armenta added.
Lunch boxes, sneakers and backpacks are some of the items that retail experts expect to be in shorter supply. The backpack racks in a couple of Denver-area Walmart and Target stores were at least half-empty.
Baird said retailers took a conservative approach this year because of the uncertainty of both demand and the supply chain.
“So, it’s sort of becoming ‘We have any backpack you want, as long as it’s black.,” she said.
Target and Walmart didn’t respond to questions about their stocks of back-to-school items.
Penfield also noted that Vietnam, where Nike produces a lot of its shoes, and other countries with large manufacturing centers are having outbreaks of the more-contagious delta variant.
“A lot of your backpacks, a lot of your apparel come out of those Asian countries,” Penfield said. “You’re not going to see the variety that you’re accustomed to seeing.”
Possible record back-to-school sales year
Regardless of abundance (or not), back-to-school shopping sales are expected to be a shot in the arm for the economy. The National Retail Federation said spending could reach a record $71 billion this year, up from $67.7 billion in 2020. Families will spend an average of $848.90 on items for students in elementary through high school, the federation estimates.
In Denver and across Colorado, families are expected to spend an average of $758 on back-to-school shopping, according to a survey by Deloitte, which provides auditing and other services to corporations. The survey didn’t specify the number of children per family.
The resulting sales will be “an economic jolt of $669 million to Colorado,” the survey said.
Nearly two-thirds of the 400 Coloradans surveyed said they’ll buy more this year because their children need more than last, which largely was remote or hybrid learning. The survey found that 38% planned to go to stores, 32% planned to shop online and 30% were undecided.
One place that had plenty of backpacks this week was Christ the King Roman Catholic Church in Denver. Catholic Charities of Denver put together about 700 backpacks filled with supplies from donors, groups and churches and started handing them out Tuesday. to students they identified as in need.
“Every year there is a need,” Catholic Charities of Denver spokeswoman Nissa LaPoint said of the annual event. “That’s why we started this school supply drive, because school supplies are expensive for families, especially for families who might have multiple children,”
This school year, families are adjusting to getting their children ready to return to the classroom and are buying supplies that they might not have needed when classes were mostly online, LaPoint said.
“In addition, a lot of our families might have faced job changes, changes in housing, other instabilities that happened from the effects of this last year,” she said.
The charity made a big push for donations this time, and ended up with at least 100 backpacks beyond the number of students they had on their list. The rest of the supplies will go to other area churches and schools.
“I do think even though we have a surplus,” LaPoint said, “it’s not going to be difficult to find more families that will be eager and grateful to have the supplies.”
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