By STEPHANIE CLIFFORD | NEW YORK TIMES
August 15, 2010 -- When Emily Cooper headed off to first grade in Moody, Ala., last week, she was prepared with all the stuff on her elementary school’s must-bring list: two double rolls of paper towels, three packages of Clorox wipes, three boxes of baby wipes, two boxes of garbage bags, liquid soap, Kleenex and Ziplocs.
“The first time I saw it, my mouth hit the floor,” Emily’s mother, Kristin Cooper, said of the list, which also included perennials like glue sticks, scissors and crayons.
Schools across the country are beginning the new school year with shrinking budgets and outsize demands for basic supplies. And while many parents are wincing at picking up the bill, retailers are rushing to cash in by expanding the back-to-school category like never before.
Now some back-to-school aisles are almost becoming janitorial-supply destinations as multipacks of paper towels, cleaning spray and hand sanitizer are crammed alongside pens, notepads and backpacks.
OfficeMax is featuring items like Clorox wipes in its school displays and is running two-for-one specials on cleaners like gum remover and disinfectant spray. Office Depot has added paper towels and hand sanitizer to its back-to-school aisles. Staples’ school fliers show reams of copy paper on sale, while Walgreens’ fliers are running back-to-school discounts on Kleenex.
State and local school financing, which make up almost all of public schools’ money, is falling because of budget-balancing efforts and lower property- and sales-tax revenue.
“Some of the things that have been historically provided by schools, we’re not able to provide at this point,” said Barbara A. Chester, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
On the list for pre-kindergartners at McClendon Elementary in Nevada, Tex.: a package of cotton balls, two containers of facial tissue, rolls of paper towels, sheaves of manila and construction paper, and a package of paper sandwich bags.
Pre-kindergartners in the Joshua school district in Texas have to track down Dixie cups and paper plates, while students at New Central Elementary in Havana, Ill., and Mesa Middle School in Castle Rock, Colo., must come to class with a pack of printer paper. Wet Swiffer refills and plastic cutlery are among the requests from St. Joseph School in Seattle. And at Pauoa Elementary School in Honolulu, every student must show up with a four-pack of toilet paper.
For the retailers, back-to-school season is second only to the holidays, and parents’ longer school-supply lists are a bonus — especially at a time when shoppers are reluctant to spend. While the impact is not enormous, retailers are looking for anything to lift sales.
“It’s newfound business that the retailers didn’t have a year or two ago,” said Steve Mahurin, executive vice president of merchandising for Office Depot.
The shift is notable even at stores that sell much more than office supplies.
“When I walk through the back rooms of our stores where the layaway orders are stored, not only are you seeing things you expect to see — computers, apparel,” said Mark Snyder, chief marketing officer of Kmart, “you’re seeing these sort of household supplies that teachers are asking, school systems are asking, kids to now bring.”
For several years, the lists have been getting lengthier, but in many parts of the country, educators and retailers say, the economic downturn has also pushed them into uncharted territory. “It’s definitely spiked this year,” said Bob Thacker, senior vice president of marketing and advertising at OfficeMax.
Many stores have tailored their offerings to reflect the demands of local schools, collecting the back-to-school supply lists and stocking inventory accordingly.
Mr. Thacker said the change had meant bigger orders this summer of things like cleaning supplies and paper towels. “It’s just changed the way our merchants buy things for their different areas,” he said.
In some places, though, parents being asked to make up depleted school budgets are under budget pressure, too, which has left schools without a clear solution.
Malcolm Thomas, the superintendent of the Escambia County school district on Florida’s Gulf Coast, has put supplies like plastic bags, Kleenex and soap under an “optional” category because “we know that people in our community are hurting,” he said. He also seeks donations from local businesses.
If those efforts don’t bring in enough supplies, it means either his teachers — who start at a salary of $32,500 — usually pay for the supplies themselves, or the district “would probably have to get into cutting personnel if we had to supply absolutely everything,” he said.
In Noblesville, Ind., Kristi Smith, 41, a teacher’s aide, said she was sympathetic to the cost pressures at her daughters’ elementary school, but she also thought the supply list was a little extreme.
“Sometimes I think it’s too much,” she said. “Is my fourth grader really going to use 50 pencils herself?”
Ms. Cooper, the Alabama mother, spent her summer making the most of the school-supply stores’ new interest in classroom supplies. “Each week I go to the stores’ Web sites — Staples, OfficeMax, Office Depot,” she said, and posts the deals on a blog for fellow bargain hunters. “All three of these major stores are offering jaw-dropping deals every week,” she said.
And as overwhelming as it might seem to some parents, she would rather buy the goods than expect Emily’s teacher to do so, she said.
“We don’t expect Wal-Mart cashiers to buy the plastic bags for our groceries, or the mailman to pay for the gas to deliver our mail,” Ms. Cooper said.