Back to school: As students gear up, local retailers track what’s popular

Lydia Thomas and her brother Griffin recently marched out of a local Walmart ready to start the school year at Woodmore Elementary School.

Griffin, who will be in third grade, will be looking good in his new Ohio State apparel. Lydia, a soon-to-be kindergartener, is looking forward to using her ice cream-patterned scissors.

Maybe most exciting to the siblings are their newly purchased tennis shoes. When mom Amanda Thomas suggested her daughter would run pretty fast in hers this year, Lydia, who wore the pink-and-purple Under Armours to the store, readily agreed.

“I can go fast all right,” she said, taking off across the Walmart’s exit doors to prove it.

The Woodville family’s purchases come as a small contribution to what the National Retail Federation predicts will approach an all-time high this year in back-to-school sales. Families with children in elementary and high school are expected to spend an average $687.72 each this year, according to the trade association.

That’s expected to add up to a whopping $29.5 billion — just shy of a peak $30.3 billion in 2012.

What’s Hot for elementary, middle school shoppers:

Locker chandeliers: Magnetic mirrors, baskets, or playful chandeliers are proving popular ways to liven up lockers this year. And, if mom’s a stickler for the supply list, teens and preteens might find them worth shelling out their own cash: Students are expected to contribute between $27 and $38 on their own back to school supplies this year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Laptop backpacks: A padded pocket protects the laptops or tablets that schools are increasingly working into their curriculums. And they’re not just for older students: Approximately one-third of the laptops purchased this season will wind up in the hands of elementary school students, according to the National Retail Federation.

Emoji patterns: Backpacks, lunch boxes, water bottles, binders, folders, pencil cases — you name it, and it’s probably plastered with a smile, a wink, or a kiss. Call it a response to the recently released Emoji Movie or reflection of the sort of text messages students would never send in class.

Slim-line pencil cases: As back-to-school essentials go, pencil cases might stand among the most fun. Staples is noticing a slimmer profile in its checkout line this year, according to a representative for the office supply store. Carly Chantavong, who’ll be starting third grade in Oak Harbor this year, is particularly excited about the flat zigzag-patterned pouch that will fit neatly into her binders.

School pride: It’s cool to show your colors, whether that’s the maize and blue or scarlet and gray of your favorite college or the athletics logo or your local school district. Manager Aimee Chafins said she sees this trend at the Walmart in Perrysburg, which stocks school spirit on apparel, school supplies, and more. Woodville third-grader Griffin Thomas approves the trend.

The back-to-school shopping season got a boost last weekend when Ohio shoppers enjoyed a tax-free weekend for clothing purchases up to $75 per item and school supplies up to $20 per item. Shoppers spent an estimated $34 million during last year’s weekend sales tax holiday, according to the University of Cincinnati Economics Center.

“Families are now in a state of mind where they feel a lot more confident feel a lot more confident about the economy,” Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation, said in a statement. “With stronger employment levels and a continued increase in wages, consumers are spending more, and we are optimistic that they will continue to do so throughout the rest of the year.”

There’s a lot that goes into stocking retail shelves for this annual shopping boon, said Ana Serafin Smith, senior director of media relations for the National Retail Federation. To predict the season’s hot items — and to have them on hand for the shoppers who are swarming their aisles this month — retailers start thinking a year in advance.

“Back-to-school planning starts right about now for the following year,” Mrs. Serafin Smith said.

That means there’s a little guesswork in the decision to stock up on, say, emoji-patterned lunchboxes up to a year before they’re expected to stake their claim as the hot item for the school year. (Emoji-themed supplies are, in fact, big this year, as representatives for Wal-Mart and Staples confirmed recently.) But Mrs. Serafin Smith said there are a few tried-and-true methods that retailers turn to when identifying back-to-school trends.

Consider, for example, the movie or TV characters that tend to crop up each year on backpacks, folders, clothing, and more. 

Mrs. Serafin Smith said retailers tend to have strong relationships with the companies that license these characters, such as Disney or Mattel, that enable them to get an early idea of what the companies will be pushing at the end of summer.

“Over a year ago, we already knew that Wonder Woman was going to be coming out at the beginning of the summer,” Mrs. Serafin Smith said, offering one example. “By then, retailers like Wal-Mart and Target and Amazon got ready to make sure they stocked up on Wonder Woman items, especially during back-to-school season.”

At Walmart in Perrysburg, manager Aimee Chafins said employees are seeing plenty of the iconic superheroine and her lasso of truth in the checkout line. She said comic book heroes in general continue to be popular among young shoppers.

Another outlet retailers use in predicting trends: social media.

“A lot of retailers are taking advantage of their social media team to see what’s trending, from apparel to accessories, and to see what’s new,” Mrs. Serafin Smith said. “If they don’t have it in store, they’re going to find a way to get it in store.”

Google Trends can be a helpful tool in tracking hot brands, patterns, and color schemes. And a trend that shows up online doesn’t necessarily appear in classrooms immediately; retailers still have time to stock up on trendy items.

There are also the continually shifting trends in school supplies. In Perrysburg, Ms. Chafins said she’s been seeing shoppers pick up water bottles, in line with school policies that are now encouraging or requiring an alternative to the hallway water fountain, and lanyards to hold school IDs.

Ms. Chafins said the August sales tax holiday tends to bring the biggest crowds to the store’s aisles of notebooks, binders, and backpacks. The Thomas family was one of numerous who took advantage of the weekend.

Walmart employees also report seeing larger crowds the week immediately before first bell — and immediately after it , Ms. Chafins said.

“We can always tell when a school opens,” she said.

Contact Nicki Gorny at or 419-724-6133.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


sixteen + 19 =