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Encore: Binders, backpacks and inflation are on 2022's back-to-school shopping list

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's that time of the year when families everywhere realize how much their kid's feet grew over the summer or they try to figure out whether they can get just one more semester's wear out of those backpacks. Well, this year's back-to-school shopping season lands in the middle of the highest inflation in four decades. So NPR's Alina Selyukh looked into how that might affect spending.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Shopping for her three children, Stephanie Maddox from Alabama recently picked up a bottle of hand sanitizer.

STEPHANIE MADDOX: Oh, my gosh. It's probably triple in price. Like, a small, little maybe eight ounce container was, like, $4, 4 or $5. And I'm like, are you kidding me? And I have to have one for each kid. And sometimes they ask for multiple bottles for each kid.

SELYUKH: Then Maddox looked at binders, which had fewer options and higher price tags. There were deals, but she says they felt more like regular prices, like she was spending more and not getting more.

MADDOX: My budget is bigger this year. I started a new job last year, so it is a bit bigger. But still, it seems like it doesn't matter much (laughter).

SELYUKH: That is exactly how inflation works. And for the first time since 2020, higher prices have replaced the pandemic as the top concern for shoppers right as back-to-school season began. This year, spending on school clothes and supplies is on track to match last year's record of $37 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. Keisha Virtue, a senior retail research analyst at JLL, looked into how much that whopper of a number was caused by inflation.

KEISHA VIRTUE: For this particular year, I think it's because prices are higher. Not to say that some people will not be buying more, as it does definitely look that way, but prices are also higher, so that's a factor.

SELYUKH: The NRF estimates that families with schoolchildren will on average spend $864, which is $15 more than last year. Generally speaking, American shoppers are still spending a lot, certainly more than before the pandemic, but now they're often getting less for their money. Mary Rynsburger from Michigan is a teacher who also has triplets going to 10th grade and another daughter starting senior year.

MARY RYNSBURGER: I'm still operating somewhat in the mode of, we'll get what we need, unless the sticker shock - I just can't stand it.

SELYUKH: She says that's how she's been dealing with food, where inflation has been the worst. She's still getting her usuals, unless it's maybe a bag of Doritos that's just not worth the new price for her. Emotionally, this is already a whole new way to shop.

RYNSBURGER: For the first time maybe in my entire experience of being a mom, I'm, you know, pausing on buying kind of more basic things that I used to, like, not even think twice about.

SELYUKH: Like she's now thinking twice about soda or grapefruit cups for kids' lunches. But, of course, back-to-school supplies are almost their own category of shopping, which often takes priority. There's a deadline and a strict list and children whom you want to succeed. So now in surveys, people say, like every year, they're looking for coupons and discounts. But many are also skipping travel or dipping into savings to stock up for school. Also this year, many more parents say they are reusing supplies, like Beverly Roquiz from California, who won't be buying a new backpack for her three young daughters.

BEVERLY ROQUIZ: I'm going to use the same one from last year because they really like it.

SELYUKH: Like all other parents I spoke with, she was kind of looking forward to the new school year, the first one that feels as normal as it gets.

ROQUIZ: I think it's going to be a great year just being back in the classes, you know?

SELYUKH: Except the spending does not stop - fees for school trips, costumes, musical instruments, gas for all the driving, all the extras that keep piling up long after back-to-school shopping is over. Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR SONG, "MONEY TREES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.