Home & Leisure

Laptops, desks and lots of hand sanitizer. How back-to-school shopping looks different this year

By Lauren Zumbach, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Home and Consumer News

CHICAGO - Jocelyn Lopez, an incoming senior at Round Lake High School, usually gets an early start on back-to-school shopping. This year, she's made just one purchase: a planner for tracking her schedule and assignments.

Classmates told her she was crazy, she said, "Because what is there to plan?"

After switching to virtual learning this spring as the coronavirus pandemic spread, many schools are still figuring out what classes will look like this fall. Lopez's school said it would only offer remote learning to start, a week after sharing a draft plan that gave students the option to attend class in person one day a week.

Her mother, Monica Lopez, said the family still isn't sure when school will start, or what supplies and clothing her three kids will need. Jocelyn Lopez had hoped to buy a laptop that would make her online work easier than the iPad her school provided in the spring, but isn't sure she can afford it after getting laid off from her job scooping ice cream at a pizza restaurant.

"I'm a person who loves to shop for school supplies, but it's hard to look at them," Jocelyn Lopez said. "Should I spend my money to buy supplies I won't use? I don't know what to do."

Families still figuring out whether their kids will be learning in classrooms or on couches will likely get a late start on back-to-school shopping, the retail industry's second-biggest shopping period after the holidays. Shopping lists, too, will look different: children learning at home may not need lunch boxes and uniforms, but could require tech tools and desks. And everyone is worried about tracking down enough disinfecting wipes.


Last year, Angie Gazdziak's daughter's school asked for two packages of wipes. This year, the fourth-grader needs five, along with a couple bottles of hand sanitizer, plus more for her preschool-age brother.

"We were joking, can I sell them my right arm instead?" said Gazdziak, of Chicago's Clearing neighborhood.

The National Retail Federation expects families with kids in elementary school through college will spend $101.6 billion this year, up from $80.7 billion last year. Other forecasts were less optimistic, predicting spending to be relatively consistent with prior years.

Parents estimated overall back-to-school shopping bills would be similar to last year's, according to Deloitte's annual survey, with a 28% jump in expected spending on technology products helping balance out a 17% reduction in spending on clothing and traditional supplies.


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