Parents are being squeezed by stagnant wages and rising costs, not to mention a growing list of classroom supplies that teachers request they buy. But kids want the Nike shoes and Abercrombie & Fitch tees they see in ads every day; never mind the cost. They also don't like to be dragged from store-to-store while their parents comparison shop. As a result, only 56 percent of parents say they're bringing their kids along for back-to-school shopping this year, down from 80 percent last year, according to marketing data firm America's Research Group.
"One of the best ways to save money is to do the shopping and bring it home and say, `Here are your back-to-school clothes,"' says ARG president C. Britt Beemer. "When children are along, pleasing them and avoiding a tantrum is an easier choice than trying to say `no way."'
Gayle Strickland Jones, who lives in Middletown, Del., decided to handle the back-to-shopping this year without her children after her ten-year-old son pleaded for an $8 pair of titanium scissors at Staples -- just because they were cool. On a solo trip, she ended up buying a $3 basic pair of scissors at Walmart instead.
Similarly, Jones, who works at DuPont, was able to save money on purchases for her daughter. Last year, Jones bought her seventh-grade daughter a new backpack with polka dots, so this year, the girl requested that all her school supplies be in zebra print. As a compromise, Jones picked up a two-pack of zebra-print erasers for $1.
Ultimately, shopping without the kids saves Jones money, which is important since her husband was laid off from his sales job earlier this year. She spent just $75 on school supplies this year ---- much less than she says she spent last year ---- and even less than if the kids had been with her.
"They would not only be pickier but wanting things they don't necessarily need," Jones says about shopping with her kids.
To be sure, children have always bugged their parents to buy unnecessary doodads. A generation ago, kids begged their parents for Legos and My Little Pony after watching commercials for the toys during Saturday morning cartoons. But that was the extent of their brand exposure.
Now, kids are being marketed to on several digital channels from the time they can talk. In total, companies spend roughly $17 billion per year advertising to kids, up from $100 million in 1983, according to the nonprofit group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. And children under eight are the most susceptible to marketing because they interpret ads literally, not understanding that the intent is to drive sales.
"If you show it to kids enough, they're going to want it," says Sandra Calvert, director of the Children's Digital Media Center at Georgetown University.
That's put a new level of pressure on parents at a time when they're looking to spend conservatively in the down economy. The average family with kids in grades kindergarten through 12 plans to shell out $604 for clothes, school supplies and electronics this year, down slightly from $606 last year
But in a 2011 back-to-school shopping survey by market-research firm Kelton Research, most parents said that, more often than not, their kids push them to buy certain products or brands. And almost one in two parents said they feel pressure to buy the highest-quality or costliest items for their children.
"When I was a kid, I used to pester my parents for name brand shoes, but I had much less access and I was much less marketed to," says Gareth Schweitzer, president of Kelton Research, adding that now it's "harder for parents to save money."
Gina Lincicum, a stay-at-home mother of an eight-year-old boy and five-year-old twins, says it's tough to keep a budget in check when shopping with kids. So this year, she's decided to order her children's clothing online, then have them try it on at home, where they won't be tempted by more expensive duds. (Lincicum, the blogger behind the site Moneywisemoms.com, says she waiting until late September to do this in order to catch deals.)
"When we're out, my son says `I want that Mario t-shirt,"' says Lincicum, whose family has been feeling the stress of the high cost of living in their Northern Virginia town. "I'm like, `Wait a second, you have enough t-shirts to get you through two years."
Sue Werle took a similar approach when she decided to exclude her four children ages 2 to 8 from back-to-school shopping trips.
Werle, who lives in Sherwood, Ore., opted to buy most of her kids' school supplies online because she could take her time and ensure she was getting the lowest price -- a feat that she says is impossible when she brings the kids to the store because they are impatient and want a lot of unnecessary things. For instance, her eight-year-old son insists on Skechers-brand shoes, which can run between $36 and $60 in his size.
"It's hard when you know those Hot Wheels pencils are just really cool," says Werle, who opted for very basic school supplies, but decided to allow each child to pick out one bigger, special item, like a backpack or pair of shoes. "But when you're trying to stick to a budget, you have to go, `What's going to matter to my child in the long run -- that they have a cool backpack or the pencil that in two weeks is going to be lost, broken or chewed on?"'
Laura Train decided to do her back-to-school shopping without her kids even knowing. Train, who works for the Social Security Administration in Baltimore County, picked up school supplies at Target while her two children were out of town in Texas this summer.
Between clothing and supplies, she budgeted $500 for both kids and so far she hasn't gone over. But her kids are at an age -- 11 and 14 -- that she didn't feel comfortable buying everything without their input. Train did her best, though, getting basic, inexpensive items in colors she thought they would like. She even picked up one item for her daughter that wasn't on the list.
"I got her a mirror for her locker," Train says. "She thought that was pretty cool."