As inflation continues, parents are scrambling to score back-to-school deals without breaking the bank

Ryan Kneller/WLVR

Plato’s Closet at the Valley Plaza Shopping Center on Catasauqua Road in Hanover Township, Lehigh County is a popular back-to-school destination. The company offers branded used clothing, shoes and accessories for teens and 20-year-olds at up to 70% off original retail prices.

While kids sharpen their pencils and dust their backpacks, parents dig a little deeper into their pockets to stock up on back-to-school essentials.

U.S. families with schoolchildren plan to spend an average of $864 on back-to-school necessities in 2022 — up $15 from last year — while college students and their families plan to spend an average of $1,199 on essentials — about the same much like 2021, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics.

Overall, total back-to-school spending this year is expected to reach $36.9 billion, similar to a record high of $37.1 billion in 2021. Top categories include electronics at $13 billion; $11 billion clothing; and shoes at $7 billion, according to the survey.

Total back-to-school spending is expected to reach $74 billion, up $3 billion from 2021, with top categories including electronics at $18 billion, dorm/apartment furnishings at $10 billion and Clothing at $10 billion, according to survey.

Persistent inflation weighs heavily on many people. A majority (68%) of survey respondents said they had seen higher prices for school supplies, and about a third (38%) of consumers said they were cutting back on spending in other areas to help afford the cost of school fashion , technical devices and more.

“Families view back-to-school and college items as an essential category, and they are taking every possible step to buy what they can, including cutting discretionary spending, grocery sales, and buying store or off-brands articles needs for the upcoming school year,” said Matthew Shay, President and CEO of NRF.

“The back-to-school season is one of the most important shopping events for consumers and retailers, right after the winter holiday season.”

One back-to-school category that families should pay particular attention to is clothing, which costs 5.1% more than last year, according to Claire Tassin, retail and e-commerce analyst at Morning Consult, a global decision-making intelligence company Delivers insights and custom market research into what people are thinking in real-time.

Spending on clothing has also increased, Tassin noted. However, there are ways to save money this season, including shopping at thrift stores or other stores that sell used fashion.

“More and more people are now into second-hand, which means the stock should be a little better,” Tassin said. “So check both your local thrift stores and online. There are many online second hand marketplaces where it is now peer to peer. Also, the Facebook Buy Nothing groups in your community are a good place to find stuff.”

In the Lehigh Valley, shoppers can visit a variety of thrift stores, including The Salvation Army Family Store on Mickley Road in Whitehall Township and Family Thrift Shoppe by American Family Services Foundation on Leithsville Road in Lower Saucon Township.

There are also other second-hand clothing stores such as The Attic on Main Street in Bethlehem, Let’s Play Tag Consignment on Route 309 in Germansville, Neomi D’s Thrifty Boutique on Bath Pike in Nazareth, and The Yellow Balloon Consignment Shop on North Third Street in Easton .

Also, Caring Hearts Clothing Closet & More (nonprofit business offering free items) on West Linden Street in Allentown and on Route 873 in Washington Township, Lehigh County.

On Catasauqua Road in Hanover Township, Lehigh County, the nine-year-old Plato’s Closet in the Valley Plaza mall is one of the top destinations for snagging the latest looks at low prices.

The shop offers used branded clothing, shoes and accessories for teenagers and 20-year-olds.

Individuals can get cash for their clothing locally, with offers based on condition, brand, style and demand. Only current styles are accepted and then sold on the floor.

“We’re a really great option because we stock popular teenage leisure brands like American Eagle, Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch, and our items cost 50-70% of their original retail value,” said Alexis Heffelfinger, keyholder at Plato’s Closet.

Ryan Kneller/WLVR

Plato’s Closet in Hanover Township, Lehigh County is one of several thrift and second-hand clothing stores in the Lehigh Valley.

Friends Maddie Hernandez and Jasleen Sandhu, both seniors at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, scoured the aisles of Plato’s Closet for new summer and fall styles earlier this week. Everyone found a coat and a few other pieces.

“I’m just buying a lot less because of the rising prices,” Sandhu said. “When I shop, I try to save as much money as possible. I also try to get the best out of every item I buy.”

A few aisles down from the Lehigh seniors, Donna Carroll of Easton had a pair of jeans over her arm. She shopped for her four sons of high school and college age, two of whom – Sean and Ryan – were with her.

The prices are definitely more affordable than most malls,” Carroll said. “I picked up a pair of shoes that my other son wanted to buy when we were shopping earlier. They’re only $25 compared to the $60 or $70 the department store had for them.”

A Morning Consult poll (conducted in May and June) of 2,760 US parents planning such purchases showed that 36% of respondents felt they could afford it without financial problems, reflecting the impact of inflation further strengthened towards the start of school.

That number is a significant drop from the 52% who answered the same question last year, and the lowest since the global intelligence firm began tracking data in 2018.

“I’m going to say that last year, because of the pandemic, we benefited from those prepayments for child tax credits and government economic reviews,” Morning Consult’s Tassin said. “So last year was a bit higher than previous years. But this year’s number is significantly worse — about 10 points down from 2018 in terms of back-to-school affordability.”

In addition to searching for second-hand clothing deals, Tassin advises families on a tight budget to browse retailer websites and compare prices before going to a store or shopping online.

“In terms of retail, it’s a really competitive environment for retailers right now,” Tassin said. “They have many inventory challenges that result in discounts.”

Despite all the financial challenges shoppers face, 25% of parents surveyed in the Morning Consult survey said they plan to spend more than $500 on their children’s supplies — a significant increase from the 7% of Parents who said the same thing this time last year . Since the surveys began in 2018, the number had never exceeded 10%.

The larger concern about inflation is just the general strain on household budgets and not specific to any back-to-school category,” Tassin said.

“It’s the gas and groceries that make everything else so hard to afford. So we know that families put off voluntary purchases, but they still spend money on back-to-school because it’s an essential purchase.”

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