Parents consider back-to-school shopping more stressful than holiday shopping

The majority of parents have gotten into an argument over back-to-school shopping, especially over the price, style or brand of a BTS item.
Elizabeth Christenson
Editor, Retail Leader
Elizabeth Christenson profile picture
Shopping for clothes with kids

The decline in consumers’ overall back-to-school (BTS) budgets is substantial, and the stress parents face with the new school year affects how they spend. The majority of parents (55%) said BTS shopping is more stressful than the holidays, according to a report from online retailer Zulily and Wakefield Research.

“Back-to-school shopping puts pressure on parents’ wallets, especially as school lists get longer and more expensive with prices on the rise,” Denise Jaeschke, Zulily’s chief marketing officer, told Retail Leader. “This pressure is compounded by parents feeling like they or their children need to keep up with the latest fashion trends that may come with a bigger price tag.” 

More than four in five (83%) agree kids are under way more pressure with fashion trends, whether they want to fit in (40%) or avoid bullies (20%), according to Zulily.

These social pressures can often lead to anxiety and stress in students, especially middle schoolers,” Jaeschke said. “Research shows that back-to-school shopping is most stressful among parents whose oldest child is 10-12 or 13-15 years old.” 

Another reason back-to-school shopping is so stressful is that it often turns into a fight. The majority of parents (81%) have gotten into an argument over back-to-school shopping, especially over the price (49%), style (35%) or brand (26%) of a BTS item, according to Zulily’s research.

This stress is coupled with what seems like to parents never-ending growth spurts. The majority of parents (72%) said their kid has outgrown a favorite clothing item and then thrown a fit when it was no longer available in the next size up, causing parents to buy in bulk.

Parental pressures don’t end once kids head off to college. More than 4 in 5 parents (81%) agree they have a duty to make sure their kids have a comfortable home even when they move out.

Expert negotiators 

More than nine in 10 parents (91%) admit kids can come up with some pretty persuasive arguments when they want an expensive item for school, Zulily found. The most persuasive argument is the classic report card negotiation: nearly half of parents (45%) would be persuaded to buy an expensive item in exchange for a promise to get good grades. Kids can also negotiate a trade, such as doing chores to pay for the cost (40%) or counting the item as their birthday or holiday present (37%), according to Zulily research.

stress mom shopping for shoes with kid

In turn, dads are more likely to succumb to societal pressure, with 82% feeling pressure to purchase BTS items that other kids or parents would envy (compared to 70% of moms). However, dads are also more willing to spend, suggesting moms experience more financial stress compared to dads. On average, dads feel comfortable paying an average of $162 for BTS clothing item, while moms are comfortable paying $97.  

Dads also are more likely to feel pressure to purchase back-to-school items that other kids or parents would envy (82%, compared to 70% of moms), especially lunchboxes (42% vs. 36%) and water bottles (37% vs 28%).  

“Moms are under more pressure than ever, and when it comes to shopping, these pressures are magnified,” Jaeschke said. “Moms are facing digital fatigue – the selection is endless, overwhelming and inescapable. At the same time, moms face a lot of pressure to be involved parents, be physically active, be successful in their job career and support their family financially. As a result, burnout and societal pressure are maxed, as 79% of moms frequently wish they had more time to spend with family.” 

Looking at generational information, parents under 40 are willing to spend an average of $147 on a BTS clothing item, while their older peers are only willing to go as high as $107. Dads under 40 open to paying $195 on average on a BTS clothing item. 

To avoid a back-to-school blow out, 46% of parents check the price tag of an item before showing an item to a child, according to Zulily’s research.

family shopping online together

Easing parents’ stress

Parents start their back-to-school shopping early, with 50% beginning as early as the start of summer break. Retailers can offer early deals on back-to-school items, so shoppers can plan ahead for purchases, which can reduce stress and anxiety while also saving time and money. 

“We launched our Back-to-School Shop earlier than ever this year to help parents complete their school shopping before the rush and snag the best deals to balance their budgets,” Jaeschke said.

Still, 47% of parents would advise other parents not to buy clothes a season ahead because it's unclear what size their kids will be wearing by then. Nearly 2 in 5 said the month before school starts (37%) is the absolute earliest it makes sense to start BTS shopping for clothes. Only 9% believe the week before school starts is the earliest it makes sense to kick off shopping.