Back-to-school shopping starts early as families deal with longer supply lists, fears some items could be out of stock

CHICAGO — Maria Brown is expecting to do more shopping than usual before starting freshman year this fall. Last year’s uniform for virtual classes — sweatpants and T-shirts — won’t cut it now that she will be attending in person every day.

“I’m definitely going to get more clothes,” said Brown, 14, of Elmwood Park.

Back-to-school sales are expected to hit $32.5 billion nationwide, the strongest they’ve been in at least five years, according to an annual survey by Deloitte. Families who skipped buying some items last year when many kids attended school remotely are stocking up again while preparing for a return to the classroom.

They also plan to do more of their shopping online. Chicago families surveyed said they expected to spend about 42% of their back-to-school budget online, up from just 24% in 2019, according to Deloitte. In prior years, some families said they liked letting kids pick out items or found it easier to track down items on highly specific school lists in person. But consumers got accustomed to shopping online during the pandemic, and retailers invested in making it easier, said Matt Adams, principal at Deloitte.

“We had been seeing an increase in online spending across the board, but last year really accelerated it,” he said.

In Chicago, families are expected to spend roughly $1 billion on back-to-school purchases this year, Deloitte said.

About 47% of Chicago families said they expected to spend more this year, with most saying their kids needed more items this year, according to the survey, which included 400 Chicago-area parents.

There’s less call for notebooks, markers and colored pencils when kids are tuning in to classes at home on their laptops. And while growing kids still need new clothes, families may not have purchased as much new apparel when they weren’t in the classroom every day.

The share of people planning to purchase computers and electronic gadgets has also grown since before the pandemic, according to Deloitte.

Some extra spending could also come from extra students, if parents of preschoolers chose to delay starting school last year or college students opted for gap years, said Scott Rankin, principal at KPMG.

KPMG, which also surveyed consumers on back-to-school shopping plans, saw the largest increases in planned spending among people with preschoolers and college students.

Target is “planning for one of our biggest back-to-school and college seasons ever” and will have “the new normals on the school supply list” in addition to traditional binders and pencils, said Christina Hennington, the retailer’s chief growth officer, during an earnings call in May.

One store in the Logan Square area recently displayed 33-ounce bottles of Purell hand sanitizer alongside tie-dyed and sequined backpacks and had a section for masks.

At Kohl’s, kids’ apparel sales have been solid because kids needed to replace clothes they’ve outgrown even if they are taking virtual classes, but the broader return to in-person education means there’s “an added layer of excitement,” chief merchandising officer Doug Howe said in a statement.

“The biggest difference we are seeing between this season compared to last year is there’s less uncertainty in what the fall will bring — instead of trying to navigate whether kids will be heading back or logging in virtually, this year most families know that students will be headed back to the classroom, which provides a great opportunity to refresh and replenish the wardrobe,” he said.

However, plans for in-person education were less certain when retailers were ordering back-to-school merchandise early this year, Rankin said. Many were conservative with the amount of merchandise they ordered, and a more limited supply could mean fewer back-to-school discounts, he said.

About 39% of consumers who told KPMG they expected to spend more during the back-to-school season said they expected items to be more expensive.

After a year when everything from toilet paper to used cars could be tough to find, some retailers expect parents will try to get a head start on shopping.

Lands’ End expects back-to-school shopping to start earlier than ever this year, CEO Jerome Griffith said in a statement.

“In addition to being filled with general excitement, many parents understand there have been nationwide supply chain delays, and want to plan ahead to ensure they can get their hands on everything their children need for a successful return to the classroom,” he said.

Lands’ End wasn’t immune to those supply chain issues but feels “well-positioned” for the back-to-school season, Griffith said.

About 47% of Chicago parents surveyed by Deloitte said they were concerned about out-of-stock items.

In addition to shopping earlier, some might turn to pre-configured supply kits sold through schools.

“This is a convenience. Supply chains have been a concern, so it’s just one more thing to take off the plate,” said Jennifer Thompson, owner of DeKalb-based school supply kit vendor The Write Stuff.

Some schools decided not to sell kits last year amid uncertainty about what school would look like in the fall, but Thompson is expecting sales to be back to normal levels this year. About 46% of Chicago parents Deloitte surveyed said they plan to buy a supply kit.

The $105 price tag for a supply kit at 7-year-old Faith Engle’s school near her family’s new home in South Elgin seemed steep, but the convenience is worth it, said her mom, Sara Engle.

“I know she’ll get exactly what the teacher wants,” said Engle, 40, while shopping at a Target in the Logan Square area with Faith and her son Jack, 4.

The Engles were hoping to pick up the only remaining items on their school supply list: backpacks, lunchboxes and headphones.

One local retailer is hoping teachers, too, stock up on items they skipped last year. Sales at the Chicago Teacher Store, in Bucktown, were down about 80% last year, said owner Belinda Carucci.

Carucci thought she would have to close Chicago Teacher Store until she landed a grant from The Barstool Fund, a small-business aid program launched by the founder of Barstool Sports, that helped cover rent and payroll.

“Teachers didn’t have a reason to shop if they were teaching from their dining room,” she said.

At least some parents, however, are still shopping cautiously. As a nurse, Maria Flores worries a surge in cases could make her daughters’ schools backtrack on plans for in-person learning and doesn’t plan to start shopping until much closer to the start of classes.

“I don’t want to buy things they won’t need,” said Flores, 37, of Northlake. “I’m probably going to take it down a notch.”