Marketplace Report: Back-to-School Costs Rise

Back-to-school shopping lists have gotten bigger — you can't get away with buying sharp pencils and a small box of crayons anymore. Now kids snap up everything from tissues to beach towels to anti-bacterial hand gels. Steve Tripoli of Marketplace talks with Alex Chadwick about the high costs of school supplies.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY with this back-to-school news. The needs or wants of your kids have gotten a lot more elaborate. They'll no longer be satisfied with some number two pencils and a couple of Trapper Keepers for the new school year. Steve Tripoli from MARKETPLACE joins us now. And Steve, what does it take these days to send a kid off to school?

STEVE TRIPOLI reporting:

Well Madeleine, I'll tell you this. After looking at school-supply lists from around the country this morning, it isn't just pencils and pens and rulers and glue sticks. In Colorado, some schools want Ziploc bags. In parts of Alabama, kids have to bring copier paper. Outside Baltimore, it's paper plates and a child-sized beach towel. In other places it's floppy disks and rubber boots and change of clothes and Spanish dictionaries. And just about everywhere, they want a box of tissues and the new must-have, which is hand sanitizer.

BRAND: Hand sanitizer?

TRIPOLI: Yeah. One newspaper story said this might be partly because the federal No Child Left Behind Law measures school attendance, so schools want fewer kids picking up germs and missing school.

BRAND: Wow. So what is all this costing?

TRIPOLI: A lot more than last year, for starters. The National Retail Federation says the average American family will spend $527.08 on school supplies this year. That's a big jump from just under $444 a year ago.

BRAND: So why the big jump in cost in just a year?

TRIPOLI: Well, squeezed school budgets nationwide play a role. More kids are being asked to pay for more of their non-book needs, just like they've been asked to pay more for sports and music classes in recent years. But beyond all the tissues and hand sanitizer, the Retail Federation says there's another new cost driving this, and that's electronics. I felt that sting myself this week. My son's sophomore algebra class requires a specific calculator that costs $100. But Scott Krugman of the Retail Federation says back-to-school electronics spending goes beyond calculators and even computers.

Mr. SCOTT KRUGMAN (National Retail Federation): Electronics has become the newest fashion accessory for kids, so they have to have cell phones, iPods, portable video game systems and PDAs - all of which are being bought under the back-to-school banner. They need the cell phones. They need the iPods. And because they need it so much, they're willing to spend their own money.

BRAND: Steve, they need it? I mean really. Some of those cell phones, iPods -those aren't exactly back-to-school items, are they?

TRIPOLI: Well, they're not. But I asked Scott Krugman that question, and he says they are. He says first of all - as he said in that tape clip - they're in part fashion accessories, and of course kids have always devoted some back-to-spending to fashion. But in part they're really seen as necessities for kids these days. Krugman says kids do use a lot of these items during the school day, whether it's while they're waiting for the bus or in the gym or wherever, so they really see them as part of school. And by the way, the total back-to-school price tag just for K through 12 this year is expected to run over $17 billion. And college students are going to spend twice that amount, but they have really expensive books to buy, and they buy a lot of furniture, too. So that's part of the explanation for that.

Speaking of price tags, Madeleine, coming up later today on MARKETPLACE, we're going to visit Biloxi, Mississippi to see how that town is rebuilding a year after Hurricane Katrina.

BRAND: Thank you, Steve. Steve Tripoli of Public Radio's daily business show MARKETPLACE. It's produced by American Public Media.

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