LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK — At Stationery and Toy World, a family-owned shop in New York’s Upper West Side, manager Gary Rowe is having difficulty getting all the pens and folders he ordered for the important back-to-school season.
His usual vendors have low stocks of Pilot’s erasable FriXion pens and Paper Mate Flair marker pens — and prices are high on stationery and other in-demand school supplies.
And Rowe is not alone, retailers are navigating a storm of challenges — higher production costs, cargo delays from China and other Asian countries, and sky-high shipping rates — as they gear up for the industry’s second-biggest selling season.
“I’m hoping that when everything catches up, we get more stock,” Rowe said at his store packed wall-to-wall with a colorful array of pens and markers. “Business has been really slow.”
After a year of keeping their kids at home, parents are eager for classes to start again.
Stimulus checks and advance child tax credits from U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration are expected to boost sales of back-to-school merchandise, especially shoes and clothing, following last year’s outlays on laptops, headphones and other equipment for remote learning. The National Retail Federation expects total back-to-school spending to rise 6.4% to $108.1 billion this year. Average spending for all age groups is forecast to be $2,049, up 10.8%.
But following retailers’ moves to prune inventories, shoppers may find fewer discounts, smaller markdowns and less merchandise in stores. Retailers “just don’t know how much to stock,” said Stacy DeBroff, founder of marketing data firm Influence Central, which works with retailers such as JCPenney, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Skechers. “There continues to be lingering supply-side issues because manufacturing was done abroad,” DeBroff said. JCPenney, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Skechers declined to comment on inventory.
Some — most likely bigger retailers — will have stored away backpacks and other products from last year that did not sell, said Matt Kramer, KPMG’s consumer and retail national sector leader. “I think they’re being very careful about giving further discounts as their inventory starts to dwindle,” Kramer said.
Macy’s worked to bring in denim clothes, school uniforms and small electronics, Chief Financial Officer Adrian Mitchell said at a recent investor conference. “We believe it’s better to potentially lose a sale due to the lack of supply than to over buy and have markdown merchandise at higher rates,” Mitchell said.
Target started putting backpacks on its sales floors much earlier this year, around the end of May, a month or more earlier than usual, data firm StyleSage said.
“We’re still moving backpacks and crayons,” said Brett Rose, chief executive officer at United National Consumer Suppliers, a wholesale distributor whose retail clients include Walmart’s Sam’s Club, Amazon and Five Below.
Rose said he is usually finished bringing such products in by May or June — at the latest.
Experts say back-to-school may offer a preview of what to expect at Christmastime as retailers pare offerings to limit risk.