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Back-to-school spending will hit all-time high

The National Retail Federation (NRF) expects consumers to spend record amounts for both school and college supplies as students prepare to return to in-person classrooms.

According to new annual survey data released by the NRF and Prosper Insights & Analytics, respondents with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average of $848.90 on school items, which is $59 more than 2020. Total K-12 back-to-school spending is expected to reach a record $37.1 billion, up from $33.9 billion in 2020 and an all-time high in the survey's history. 

Meanwhile, college students and their families plan to spend an average of $1,200.32 on college or university items, an increase of $141 from 2020. Over half ($80) of the projected increase in college spending is due to increased spending on electronics and dorm furnishings. Total back-to-college spending is expected to reach a record $71 billion, up from $67.7 billion in 2020.

As of early July, more than half (51%) of all respondents have begun shopping for the items they will need when classes resume. Four in 10 (39%) say they took advantage of recent sale events such as Prime Day, Target Deal Days, and Walmart's Deals for Days to shop specifically for school items.

[Read more: Study: Prime Day will draw back-to-school shoppers]

However, there is still plenty of shopping left to do. The vast majority (76%) of K-12 shoppers were still waiting on lists for school supplies as of earlier in July.

On average, respondents reported that they had completed only 18% of their back-to-class purchases so far by early July. Among those with at least half of their shopping left to complete, 51% said it was because they did not yet know what they will need and 48% said they were still waiting for the best deals. Additionally, 43% of all respondents say they plan to use money they received from government stimulus to purchase items for the upcoming school year.

While respondents are planning to spend more on K-12 students in every category, electronics and clothing saw the biggest increases. Respondents plan to spend $21 more on average on electronics this year compared with 2020, and $19 more on clothes. Of those planning to purchase electronics, half (49%) plan to buy a laptop, followed by a calculator (32%) and a tablet (31%).

“Consumers are spending more on items like electronics and clothing as they make plans for students to resume activities in person this fall,” said Prosper Insights executive VP of strategy Phil Rist. “For those in particular with children in elementary to high school, shoppers are putting the largest portion of their budgets toward electronics, new clothes and accessories.”

The most popular destinations for K-12 shoppers are online (48%), department stores (48%), discount stores (44%), clothing stores (41%), office supplies stores (27%) and electronics stores (27%).

The top destinations for college shoppers include online (43%), department stores (33%), discount stores (30%), office supplies stores (29%) and college bookstores (28%).

“The pandemic forced parents and their school-aged children to quickly adapt to virtual learning, and they did it with an incredible amount of resolve and flexibility,” said NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay. “We enter the new school year with plans to return to the classroom and retailers are prepared to help Americans find and purchase whatever they need to make this transition as seamless as possible.”

The survey of 7,704 consumers was conducted July 1-July 8 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.1 percentage points.

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