published Saturday, August 6th, 2011

’Tis the season for back-to-school shopping

North LaFayette Elementary teacher Shelly Queen shops for school supplies at the School Box in Chattanooga on Friday.
North LaFayette Elementary teacher Shelly Queen shops for school supplies at the School Box in Chattanooga on Friday.
Photo by Tim Barber.
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With pencils, paper, bulletin boards, books, markers and maps on the shopping list, back-to-school budgets quickly can get out of hand for new teachers.

Trish Flood, a fourth-grade teacher at Chatsworth Elementary School in North Georgia, spent about $3,000 on back-to-school shopping last year.

“Hopefully, this year I’ll stay under $1,000,” she said.

Flood started teaching fourth grade last year and had to redo her classroom. Teachers must shoulder the majority of those costs themselves.

But while the month leading up to the start of school can drain teachers’ and parents’ wallets, it’s a favorite time for many retailers.

Combined back-to-school and back-to-college sales will reach $68 billion this year, according to a National Retail Federation survey done last month. The average family with students in kindergarten through high school is expected to drop $600 and the college-bound $800, the survey said.

“This is our Christmas, this week and next week,” said Becky Sullivan, manager of the School Box school supply store off East Brainerd Road at Interstate 75.

School Box hires about five workers to keep up with the hundreds of additional customers it sees during the season, Sullivan said.

The store stocks up its inventory in anticipation of the heavy customer load, she said, but there’s always one item they just can’t keep up with.

This year, it’s orange folders. As to why so many students need orange folders, assistant manager Sarah Crabtree guessed some classrooms may require students to have matching folders.

But no matter the item, Crabtree said it’s a constant carnival in the store until things die down by the end of September.

“We just strap our seat belts and hold on,” she said.

Just because the store’s busy doesn’t mean its customers, mostly teachers, aren’t being thrifty.

Amy Phillips, a third-grade teacher at North LaFayette Elementary School, carried around a $3.50 pack of patterned name tags as she shopped Friday, trying to determine whether the product was worth the price.

Teachers do get some help from the schools. Phillips said that in past years she’s had about $100 reimbursed by the school. This year, with budget cuts, she expects less help.

“I’m only buying what I really need,” she said.

Phillips is not the only one being careful with her cash in the down economy. Half the customers surveyed by the National Retail Federation said they’ll shop sales, and nine out of 10 said the recession will affect their spending.

Still, retailers are seeing mobs of customers. Sixteen percent of shopping centers’ annual sales typically come during this season compared to 28 percent around Christmas, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

On Thursday, Ellis Freeman sold eight pairs of shoes to a father of four. The family was trying to beat the bigger crowds shopping during the weekend’s tax holiday. But Freeman said that, on a typical day, his department will see about 600 customers during back-to-school time.

“And that’s just in shoes,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

For area teachers, back-to-school costs tend to drop annually after the first five years, eventually hovering around $150.

Wes Castle has taught second grade at Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts for 12 years. He has accumulated plenty of supplies over the years, so he doesn’t need to spend the $1,000 Flood had to drop, but he still spends at least $100 preparing for his classroom and another $100 for his 9- and 6-year-old sons.

“It’s not too bad,” he said. “I don’t spend as much of my own money as I once did. I’ve got it pretty good.”

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