Kelly Sanchez’s first-grade daughter needed tennis balls for the legs of her chair.
Paula Adamy found backpacks and gallon-sized Ziploc bags, but needed a German recorder for her granddaughter’s third-grade music class.
Sarina Scaccia no longer had to find color-coordinated folders for her high school-age daughters, but was on the hook for a $129 algebra calculator.
Welcome to the annual back-to-school scavenger hunt, where parents and grandparents flood the stores in search of everything on teacher lists from “low-odor” dry erase markers to Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils. For parents, it can be an expensive headache. For retailers, it’s big business – second only to the holiday shopping season, according to the National Retail Federation.
And some parents who are just starting now are finding they’re already behind the curve.
“I’ve been shopping since July,” said Amy Monson, who learned the hard way one year not to wait too long to begin shopping or risk not being able to find that orange folder the teacher requires in time.
The early shopping paid off. The West Seneca mother scored 10-cent packs of filler paper and a one-cent bottle of glue earlier this summer. But she still had to shell out 15 bucks for a three-inch binder.
Carol Wery once made the mistake of buying the wrong-sized binder for one of her children. She found herself back at the store again a few weeks later.
“You do that once, you never do it again,” said Wery, an Alden mother of eight who estimates she will spend $400 on school supplies this year for her children, including at least 25 three-ring binders.
Nobody’s disputing that back-to-school shopping is still far outweighed in retailing importance by the $600 billion winter holiday shopping season. But a National Retail Federation survey pegs late summer as the second-biggest shopping season, with consumers across the nation spending $74.9 billion on back-to-school shopping for kindergartners through college students.
The importance of school sales is evident at office supply chains and big-box department stores. At Target on Transit Road in Depew, employees began stocking the store’s seasonal section with Hello Kitty notebooks and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle backpacks shortly after classes let out for the summer. Four days a week, trucks roll up with everything from pencil-tip erasers to Yoobi markers to refresh the stock of merchandise.
“As soon as the kids get out of school, we set up,” said Marlon Kerner, an executive team leader of human resources for Target.
It’s not just big-box stores that seek out back-to-school shoppers. While national chains have the volume, local retailers look to carry speciality items that shoppers aren’t going to find elsewhere.
Vidler’s 5 & 10 on Main Street in East Aurora stocks a department with the usual office and school supplies. But tucked among the shelves of gum erasers and protractors are die-cast pencil sharpeners shaped like the Empire State building, clear-plastic pocket protectors and calligraphy dip pens.
The store tries to stock niche items that big retailers might not want to carry, said Don Vidler, whose grandfather founded the store in 1930.
“To us, selling two dozen of something is great,” Vidler said. “To a Walmart, that’s a drop in the bucket. They might not consider that worth their time.”
Both large and small retailers seek to work with local schools to ensure parents can find what teachers request. At Vidler’s, that means making special orders when teachers are working on specific projects and offering tri-fold foam board year-round. At Target, that means printing out the shopping lists of local teachers as soon as they’re out each summer.
Those carefully crafted classroom supply lists – meant to minimize the noise of scraping chairs and the stench of dry erase markers –can become the bane of parents in late summer.
Scaccia, an Elma mother whose youngest daughter, Julianna, will be a freshman at Buffalo Seminary this year, said back-to-school shopping goes more quickly now that her children are older and the teachers allow students to make more of the choices.
“When they were little, it was ‘two-pocket purple, three-pocket orange,’” Scaccia recalled. “It was very detailed and often they didn’t have the stuff we needed, and we’d have to go to different stores.”
Finding everything on her daughters’ lists had gotten easier, but not cheaper. Julianna Scaccia this year will need a cover for her school-issued computer and a calculator for freshman algebra. Students in her class will take notes in class on their laptops, receive homework assignments by email and submit their work electronically.
“Everything is electronic, which is why we don’t need as many supplies,” Scaccia said.
Many parents also report seeing fewer textbooks come home with their children as schools print out new lessons aligned with the state’s new learning standards. But that also means more three-ring binders to organize all those worksheets.
Paula Adamy doesn’t remember back-to-school shopping being as much of a “big to-do” back when her children were young. But now that she makes an outing out of taking her grandchildren on an annual back-to-school shopping trip, she appreciates getting the teacher lists ahead of time. Like many families, she’s also become accustomed to outfitting classrooms with everything from boxes of tissues to Ziploc bags to paper napkins.
“They help supply the classroom,” Adamy said, “because, you know, our taxes don’t pay for everything.”
There are still a few items that don’t cost money. On the third-grade list for Adamy’s granddaughter, Hailey Jo, were two items they could find around the house: an old T-shirt for art and an old cotton sock for erasing the whiteboard.