The inflation story takes center stage in our 16th annual back-to-school (BTS) survey. Although parents were willing to endure higher prices last year for replenishing BTS items after the pandemic, 18 months of inflation have changed their tune. Uneasiness about the economic situation is creating price sensitivity and causing parents to reassess how they’ll approach shopping for the upcoming school year.
BTS is typically the second largest spending event for families after the holiday season,1 which causes shoppers to be heavily motivated by deals. With prices of school supplies increasing 23.7% in the past two years,2 BTS shoppers’ need for a bargain is even more palpable.
With budgets being strained, consumers are also reflecting on priorities. Increasingly, consumers are looking to repad their savings and shift more of their budget to experiences, like leisure travel.
So where does that put BTS on the priority list? Parents—across all three income groups—plan to spend less this year, with total spend dropping 10% year over year (YoY). The focus is on replenishing the necessities, such as school supplies, while holding off on nonessential purchases like tech and apparel.
The shopping journey will be centered around finding ways to economize—for instance, researching the best deals, shopping earlier, and homing in on how to get items (and return them) in the most affordable manner.
But it’s not all doom and gloom for retailers. This is back-to-school after all—an event that invokes nostalgia, family traditions, and a desire to please our children. Nearly six in 10 parents say they would be willing to splurge for the right reasons, like treating their child or allowing their child to express themselves. Retailers that can understand the drivers of splurging may be able to capitalize on those willing to part with a little extra cash.
Learn how families are approaching the 2023 back-to-school season in the face of inflation. The findings include shopping behaviors, insights into consumer sentiment, and spending trends.
As persistent inflation weighs on parents, many are having to make strategic decisions when it comes to their BTS budgets this year. Spending per child is expected to decrease 10% to $597 (compared to $661 in 2022), with all three income groups pulling back YoY. Further, 68% parents plan to spend the same or less YoY, with 51% of those planning to spend less citing reduced disposable income.
With parents looking to economize, they’re focusing on necessities like school supplies (+20%), while pulling back on apparel (–14%) and tech (–13%). Sustainable items—once a priority—are on the back burner, with only 35% planning to purchase them (versus 50% in 2022). Shoppers are likely to prioritize retailers with competitive pricing, with 80% favoring mass merchants. They are willing to spend an average $32 to qualify for free shipping, and 59% say they will only shop at retailers offering free returns.
Fifty-one percent of BTS shoppers anticipate a weakening economy in the next six months (versus 54% in 2022). Prolonged inflation has led to a worse financial situation for 31% of parents over the past year. Parents are reacting by shopping earlier for deals (59% of the budget will be spent by the end of July versus 53% in 2022), and they’re choosing to pay with cash (77% versus 72% in 2022).
Despite keeping an eye on the budget, nearly six in 10 parents are willing to splurge for the right reasons, like treating their child, self-expression, or better quality. Clothing/accessories and tech products are the top categories that may drive splurge spending. Retailers that can understand the drivers of splurging may be able to capitalize on those willing to part with a little extra cash.