How Back-to-School Shopping Has Changed Amid Inflation

Little kids schoolchildren pupils students running hurrying to the school building for classes lessons from to the school bus.
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Inflation has been hitting Americans hard, everywhere from the gas pump to the grocery store. In July, the Consumer Price Index rose 8.5% compared to the prior year — an improvement over last month, but still quite high.

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And as we head into the last few weeks of summer, there’s another major event being impacted by inflation: back-to-school shopping.

A June Shopkick survey of more than 12,500 consumers across the country uncovered how they are planning to shop this back-to-school season. Highlights include:

  • Forty percent of consumers expect to spend less on back-to-school items this year than they did last year. The majority of those shoppers (61%) said they’ve tightened their budgets due to rising inflation. 
  • Of those who expect inflation to impact their back-to-school shopping, 70% plan to spend less on non-essential purchases, as well as employ deal-hunting and comparison shopping strategies more than they typically would. 
  • Nearly all (91%) of this year’s back-to-school shoppers plan to make their purchases in-store. Of those consumers, 89% plan to do so at big-box retailers. Others plan to shop at dollar stores (46%), off-price retailers (38%) and office supply stores (30%). 

Here’s more insight into how back-to-school shopping has changed amid inflation, according to consumer analyst Julie Ramhold with 

The Shopping Season Started Earlier

First, Ramhold said the back-to-school shopping season has grown longer. “Back-to-school season tends to be a bit extended anyway, because schools start sessions at different times, from early August to early September,” she explained.

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Usually, sales start in late July and run through Labor Day. This year, however, shoppers started looking for items even sooner, with searches for “back to school supplies” reportedly increasing by 80% in July compared to the same time last year.

Shoppers Are Also Taking Their Time

With deals starting earlier, consumers have the opportunity to take their time purchasing what they need. “It seems that consumers are looking for deals sooner, which means they may also be looking to spread their shopping out in general,” Ramhold said.

“Doing so will enable them to find and take advantage of deals, as well as stick to their budgets, because they can stretch out the process rather than having to do the shopping all at once.”

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Budgets Are Being Stretched

Not surprisingly, families are also expecting to spend more in general. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers plan to spend an average of $864 on back-to-school supplies — up $15 from last year. “Because of this and prices in general, back-to-school spending is actually set to break records this year,” Ramhold noted. 

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Of the items that have seen the sharpest price increases year over year, clothing tops the list. “Although some retailers are discounting clothing deeply in an effort to clear shelves, most consumers are expecting clothing and accessories to be the top category they see price increases in,” Ramhold said.

General school supplies are also much more expensive thanks to inflation, but Ramhold said there are a few decent deals to be found. As a result, consumers are cutting back in other areas.

“Shoppers still see back-to-school shopping as an essential category,” Ramhold said. That means budget categories that aren’t deemed “necessary” are taking a backseat to back-to-school shopping.

Comparison Shopping Is the Name of the Game

In an effort to mitigate rising costs, Ramhold noted that many families are focusing on finding sales and deals, as well as opting to shop for store-brands more often than before.

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“In previous years, consumers may have just taken the price tag at face value for all the school supplies, but this year, they’re having to seek out deals in order to stick to their budgets,” she explained. “That means doing more comparison shopping and thinking on big-ticket items longer than they may have before.”

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About the Author

Casey Bond is seasoned editor and writer who has covered personal finance for more than a decade. Currently, she is a reporter for HuffPost covering money, home and living. Previously, she held editorial management roles at Student Loan Hero and GOBankingRates. Casey’s work has also appeared on Yahoo!, Business Insider, MSN, The Motley Fool, U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, TheStreet and more.
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