Dispatches from the Potomac#38 | A Glimpse of the Driving Force Behind America in Back to School Sales

This is a translation of an article originally written in August 2021 for publication in the October 2021 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Yoichi Mineo

Back to School Shopping Rooted in the United States

If you go to any mass retailer in the U.S. around July or August, you will see a sign that says, "Back to School”. I remember seeing this when I first came to the U.S. 20 years ago and struggling to understand what it meant. In simple terms, it is basically a sale for items to be used in the new school term. Of course a similar concept exists in Japan as well, and it is common practice to buy school bags when entering elementary school, school uniforms when entering junior high school, and new stationery for the new school year. However, there are many differences in terms of scale, content, and the way certain purchases become habits.

In terms of scale, the United States will spend an estimated USD 849 per household (USD 37.1 billion in total) on school supplies in 2021. While similar figures for back to school shopping in Japan are not readily available, it is hard to imagine that households in Japan spend as much as USD 849 (JPY 93,390 at JPY 110 to the dollar) every new school year. The large scale of back to school shopping in the U.S. is probably the reason why the concept has taken root in the country. Interestingly, less than 40% of the USD 849 is for clothes and school bags. In America, it is not customary to use the same school bag until graduation like in Japanese elementary schools, and so new backpacks, shoes, and clothes are usually bought at the start of each new school year.

Economic Disparity Extends to the Classroom

17% of the USD 849 will be used for stationery and other school supplies. Of course, we buy school supplies in Japan too, but many of the school supplies that parents buy for their children in Japan, for example pencils, erasers, glue, scissors, box tissues, and wet wipes, are communal items stored in each classroom in America. These items are kept by the teacher and distributed to students as needed. These items do not belong to the students, so in America, students do not generally buy things like stationary adorned with images of their favorite char- acters as students in Japan due.

In America, after the end of the school year in June, the school provides parents with a shopping list of items to be bought for the next school year, with brand and size specifications. Some states even offer sales tax exemption for back to school shopping. In addition, there are online services available for parents who don't have time to go shopping. These online stores will partner with specific schools and also offer bundles of items in sizes and brands specified by teachers. Of course, there are families whose financial situations prevent them from being able to afford the designated brands, or even from buying school supplies at all. Some families donate stationery to children in need, and in some cases, the stationery is collected in the classroom and given to the children. In other cases, teachers have to pay for their own classroom’s stationery and school supplies. According to data from 2018, 93% of elementary and middle school teachers in America purchase at least some school supplies out of pocket, with the average amount reaching USD 459 per year, despite the average teacher salary across the U.S. being around USD 60,000, which is not very high. There is a movement to make donations to aid teachers in need, and there are crowdfunding efforts to support more specific needs, as well as a system where teachers can post shopping lists of what they need and donors are able to choose which items to buy and deliver to the teachers.

While there are some schools facing difficult financial situations, there are also schools that save up specifically for school supplies that parents would be otherwise forced to purchase in large amounts each year. This disparity extends broadly to the field of education as well.

In addition to providing school supplies to students, American schools often ask parents to donate money for events such as graduation ceremonies and field trips. Even for events that are common across the education system, the idea is to not have a uniform budget for the entire national school system, but to have each school or community raise as much money as it needs for the things it deems necessary.

If you are unhappy with any disparity that arises as a result of this system, you are meant to deal with it yourself―after all, you are given “equal opportunity” to do so. Therefore, the system believes that it is up to the individual whether they succeed or not. If you succeed, you can earn the privilege to live in a wealthy area and send your children to a wealthy school. Is this the driving force behind America's growth?