School shopping no spree in slow economy

Dread puts parents in delay

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Shiny new shoes, pristine No. 2 pencils, a snappy lunchbox: Back-to-school shopping was once a welcomed ritual, an autumnal rite for parent and child.

No more. Big prices and small budgets have turned the once pleasant annual purchasing party into an allegory of a flagging economy, producing parental angst and industry cheerleaders who urge the moms and dads to at least “buy American.”

The days of shelling out a sensible or at least comfortable amount for junior’s school needs are gone. On average, American parents spend from $545 to $671 per child, according to the National Retail Federation. Costs for college-bound offspring are in the $900 range. The official “BTS” (back-to-school) industry annually tops $67 billion, the group said.

Meanwhile, “BTSD” (back-to-school dread) has ensued.

Even as the first day of school looms, parents are in delay mode. Almost two-thirds have not figured out how much they can spend this year, while 55 percent have not purchased a single item, says the Chase Slate-U.S. News Consumer Monitor, which has plumbed the parental psyche in a survey that reveals worry and, yes, denial.

More than half of the respondents — 53 percent — described back-to-school shopping as “stressful,” while majorities also gritted their teeth and agreed that the big event was “necessary but not fun.” About a fifth acknowledged that they downright disliked the proverbial search for notebook paper and new rulers — not to mention expensive electronics or fancy athletic shoes.

Clothing, in fact, is the category where most parents will cut back: 63 percent said they would likely spend less on the sartorial needs of their students. Forty percent said they’d trim back on school supplies, 17 percent on school tuition and 10 percent on sports or art-related activities.

More than a third said they planned to buy only “necessary” items and make only “must-have purchases.”

JPMorgan Chase, which conducted the survey of 1,080 parents in conjunction with U.S. News & World Report magazine, at least sees an opportunity for a teachable moment amid the financial doldrums.

“There is no better moment to teach kids about planning and spending wisely than when the money is being spent on them,” said Tom O’Donnell, general manager of Chase Card Services, who adds that organized parents with budgets ultimately could yield “a significant shopping season.”

Others are also acutely aware of the larger picture.

The Made in the USA Foundation has assembled a back-to-school list of apparel and school supplies — from American manufacturers only.

Among the recommendations: Tough Traveler backpacks, General Pencil pencils, Basic Brand and Ampad paper, Levi’s and True Religion jeans, Allen Edmonds and Alden shoes. See the complete list at www.madeusafdn.org.

“It’s important that our kids know where their stuff comes from, and believe it or not, children take a huge interest in this,” said Joel Joseph, chairman of the California-based group.

“I took my three sons through a couple of U.S. factories and they just loved it. Our list has products from all around the U.S., and this year in particular, choosing American matters,” he added.

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