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Back to school spending lessons

| Sunday, Aug. 13, 2006

Teachers' notes may have arrived by mail. The first day of school is getting closer. And that means the hunt is on to fill students' backpacks with what seem like ever-growing lists of school necessities.

Not just the basic notebooks, rulers, crayons and pencils, maybe a pocket dictionary. Upper-level students may be asked to buy bigger ticket items like scientific or graphing calculators and flash drives that store and transfer computer data.

Then there are the extras that make returning to school almost fun. Locker door mirrors, colorful stretchy fabric book covers and plastic folders, for example, and mass merchandisers and office supply stores are fully stocked with them this year.

Combined with the seasonal quest for clothing, shoes and backpacks, the high-tech necessities and array of tempting school stuff can make pre-fall shopping for kids more complicated and expensive than ever. There may be trips to several stores, and parents and students may spend almost as much time looking for the right supplies as for jeans and T-shirts.

Back-to-school spending overall is expected to hit a five-year high this summer, jumping by almost 16 percent to an average $527 per consumer after a decline in 2005, the National Retail Federation said, based on its recent survey.

Total spending could rise to $17.6 billion, up from $13.4 billion last year.

The big reason for the increase• Electronics, which represent $114 of the per-consumer total, federation spokeswoman Kathy Grannis said.

"Those are your more high-end cost items" and students and schools increasingly view them as necessary supplies, she said. Lesson plans and homework are shared on the Internet, making home computers an especially handy tool, for example.

But consumers also will spend about $86 on other classroom supplies, according to the survey.

Theresa Young, assistant manager at the Holcomb's Knowplace teacher and student supply store in Bridgeville, follows long lists of schools' required supplies each year as she prepares her own three children for school.

She buys classroom basics plus other supplies such as packs of colored construction paper and glue sticks for arts and crafts, things she doesn't recall buying in her own school days.

"When I was a kid, the schools just had it," Young said.

Brashear High School student Michelle Crozier usually spends $15 to $20 on basic supplies before classes, and $5 a month afterward for pencils and other items, as needed. This fall, though, for her junior year, she figures she may need a graphing calculator that costs $80 or more.

"I think I will have to buy the calculator. When you're in algebra, they provide you with one, but in geometry they don't. And I take accounting classes too," Crozier, 16, said as she shopped at the Staples office supply store on Banksville Road in Pittsburgh.

Most students, or family members, shop for back-to-school items in the month prior to Labor Day, a survey by Accenture Research said, and all but 1 percent go out to stores, as opposed to shopping online.

They prefer mass merchandisers like Kmart, Wal-Mart and Target, with big-box office specialty stores like Staples, Office Depot and Office Max a second choice.

"Back-to-school is a huge business" for major retailers and office superstores, and even for specialty retailers such as Limited Too that target preteens with sparkly notebooks and feather-topped pens, for example, Duquesne University marketing professor Audrey Guskey said.

The business has evolved in the past decade or so beyond standard pencils, pens and sports- or cartoon-themed notebooks to a wider variety of products to stay stylish and organized. "School supplies are more than just functional now. They are symbolic in making a statement about the student," she said.

Kmart Vice President Barbara Poling said the chain has noticed shopping lists becoming more diverse, with clothes still the No. 1 priority but supplies and the latest electronics important, too.

School shoppers started to make their way to Staples on Banksville Road several weeks ago, said Jason Cox, the store's general manager. Two nationally distributed circular fliers, and TV ads that started "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" in July no doubt helped.

"Every year it's amazing, the more and more that people spend for back to school," said Cox, who has been with Staples for eight years and at the Banksville store for five.

Racks at the front of the store hold Staples' suggested lists of supplies for each grade level. Some local teachers bring in their own lists for display, closer to the start of school.

Mass merchandisers and office supply retailers, especially, now offer cheap prices for notebooks, lined paper, pencils and pens, hoping to draw consumers inside and sell bigger ticket items too. Kmart will offer buy one, get one free deals on supplies, for example.

Many customers appreciate the low prices. At Staples, Lisa Frazier looked at a 99-cent box of markers for son Christian, 7, going into second grade at Beechwood Elementary School.

She's been off work since the birth of her 3-month-old son Brennan, and wants to spend a little less on school supplies this year. "That's why when I see 99 cents -- that's OK," she said.

This year, the office supply chain has been pushing colorful notebooks and folders, room and locker decor based on its study that concluded students want to be organized, and they want style.

Crowds at the store will build to crunch time, the last week before local schools start, and this year for the first time the chain will have employees scanning and bagging items as customers stand in checkout lines. They'll be handed a card, which they'll show the cashier before paying.

Guskey advises parents and students that, unless teachers have sent out lists of needed supplies, to wait until school starts before buying the bulk of a student's supplies. For example, "Some teachers may want them to have the five section notebooks, some may want the three-section," she said.

Apparel and shoes still account for the bulk of back-to-school shopping, at a combined $326 this year, according to the National Retail Federation survey.

The fall season will be a throwback to the '70s and '80s, with bigger tops and leggings under miniskirts popular for girls, for example, Macy's spokeswoman Heather Hannan said.

"We started to get the school merchandise last month," she said, and interest in back-to-school shopping seemed to start even earlier than usual this year, possibly because of sweltering temperatures that drove shoppers to air conditioned stores.

Additional Information:

Essentials, and little extras

Items that could appear on back-to-school lists, especially for trend- and tech-savvy teenagers:

  • Academic planner, $4-$10

  • Stretch fabric covers, to protect texts, $4

  • Paper or polymer folders, up to $2.50

  • Locker kit, with mirror, dry erase board, storage bin, $8

  • Graphic T-shirt, $20

  • Denim miniskirt and leggings, $50

  • Jeans, prices vary, many in $50 range

    Sources: Tribune-Review research, Staples, Macy's

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