Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

School of shop

Thousands of parents are forking out hundreds of dollars for back-to-school supplies, but for many -- pencils, pens and scribblers -- aren't on their lists

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Every August, Debbie Bray has an extraordinarily long list of school supplies to purchase. It's a seemingly monumental task, and she even complicates the matter by comparison-shopping across the city at Staples, Superstore, Giant Tiger and elsewhere looking for the best quality for the lowest price.

But Bray isn't shopping for her own children, per se. She's on the hunt for school supplies for the 23 or more students in her Grade 2 and 3 combined class at Carpathia Elementary school in Winnipeg.

Besides ensuring her students have the right-quality supplies, Bray says her annual shopping runs save time for parents in her class -- and money, too.

"The plus for the parents is that we take the time ourselves to find the best price, and usually as a teacher, you're buying in bulk so the cost is less."

In fact, all teachers at the school buy supplies for their students before the school year starts, says principal Holly Mackie.

The cost for parents is $45, or about $4.50 per month for a year's supply of scribblers, pencils, crayons, pencil crayons, erasers, scissors, glue and even a pencil case.

"I think more of our schools are moving toward that because most parents really appreciate that there's one cost at the beginning of the year for school supplies for the entire year," Mackie says.

Of course for many parents, school supplies are just one small part of the annual back-to-school spending rituals.

Canadian families spend on average hundreds of dollars for their children's return to the classroom -- at least according to the many surveys that start popping up in late summer.

For example, a recent survey by Visa Canada found Canadian families plan to spend on average $488 on back-to-school purchases this year.

That's less than last year, says Ann-Marie McIntosh, head of digital services Visa Canada.

"We've seen that decrease by about 15 per cent over 2012," she says. "There's an element of being more frugal for this part of their annual shopping experience."

Part of this move toward more price-conscious spending is an increase in online shopping, she adds.

"Almost 80 per cent of Canadians will be shopping online for back to school, which is obviously a significant percentage."

And nine out of 10 of those surveyed stated they engage in 'showrooming' to find the best deal.

"So I, as consumer, would go into a store and see something that I like," she says. "Then I can either go online on my phone while at that store and see if it can be found somewhere cheaper, or I'm going to go home and on my tablet or my laptop to see if I can buy that product for less online."

Overall, parents are still predominantly shopping in bricks and mortar retail outlets, accounting for about two-thirds of spending. But online shopping is growing. Even shopping for clothing is increasingly done online, McIntosh says.

"When we look at overall online spending in Canada, apparel is our number one growth category."

Another recent survey of Canadian families also found Canadian families plan to spend hundreds on back to school, only considerably less than what Visa's poll discovered.

According ING Direct, parents plan to spend about $252 for back to school. The poll also looked at children's attitudes toward back-to-school spending and found they come surprisingly very close to their parents' estimates.

Surveyed children estimate their parents will spend about $232 for their school supplies and clothing.

"There is some alignment there, which means kids are relatively reasonable about what would be spent," says Silvio Stroescu, ING Direct's head of deposits.

One reason why the numbers are so close is many parents -- 75 per cent -- use these shopping expeditions as a teaching moment for their children.

"It's a great opportunity for parents because it involves something that interests their kids," he says. "Half the job is already done because if you want to teach someone something, the learner has to be engaged."

To facilitate the learning process, ING Direct also recently launched a website for educating children about finances.

Called LilSavers.ca, it includes a savings program that allows children to budget and save for goals where they can learn money basics, such as earning interest on savings.

"For example, if your child saves $50, you can set on the website the interest rate at five per cent, and say 'I'll pay you five per cent on the money you save,'" he says. "That provides them with an opportunity to learn about the importance having their money work for them."

Parents also have the option to set out objectives, like chores, for how their children can earn their money. While it's likely too late for this school year, Stroescu says the website could be a useful tool for parents and children who may already want to set goals for wants and needs for next year's annual back-to-school shopping trip.

This might come in particularly handy for clothing purchases, which for many parents make up the largest outlays.

That's likely the case at schools like Carpathia, where supplies aren't a big expense.

For Carpathia's principal, Mackie, the fact that supplies are already taken care of is more than a convenience for parents. It also has another important benefit.

"Our neighbourhood is very diverse -- both culturally and economically -- and this is a way for families to start the school year off on an even playing field," she says. "Everybody has the same supplies and it's great because it really eliminates possible friction."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2013 B10

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