Back to School Shopping & Style Trends

Back to school looks profoundly different this year than it did last year or the year before. We’re all reeling from Covid and inflation. Prices are up on everything back to school related you can think of, from Mead pencils to white platform sneakers.

While researching back to school trends for an article at work (in my day job, I am a content marketer), I came across some interesting figures and fads. 

Spoiler alert: People are shopping in stores much more. Prices are a hot mess. And bucket hats, trapperkeepers, and Barbiecore are trending cool.

The Average Family is Paying $864 for Back to School Shopping 

According to the National Retail Federation, the average family with children K-12 is shelling out $864 on school supplies including clothing. This is a $15 increase over last year and a $168 increase from 2019. (Note: In a commonly cited Deloitte study, parents are spending an average of $661 per student for back to school spending. There is some variance even when accounting for different household sizes. But both studies do highlight an underlying trend of increased spend for back to school.)

37% of families expect to spend more this year than last year on back to school supplies and most families are spending at least as much as last year.

Amid a challenging economy, back to school is one area where families are not cutting back. Families see back to school costs as essential. Nearly 40% are cutting spend in other areas in order to kit out their children for the school year.

Ways Families Are Stretching Their Dollars Further

While spending is up, parents are still looking to stretch their dollar. Loyalty is going to the lowest bidder. Families are looking for the best deals by:

  • Sticking to big box retailers. Families on an especially tight budget ($300 or less) are most likely to shop at big box retailers.
  • Buying in bulk. Not just 10-packs of notepads, although that’s up too, but buying other related gooods in mega bulk. Think 24-packs of backpacks. Families are pooling their resources to get the cheapest per unit price on back to school supplies.
  • Waiting for sales. 52% of parents will only purchase a back to school item if it’s on sale. If not, they’re more likely to shop elsewhere than wait for a sale.
  • Turning out in store. Last year, 43% of families preferred to do their back to school shopping in stores. This year, that figure is just shy of 50%. And only 16% of parents said they are shopping online-only retailers for back to school. Analysts contend it’s related to parents searching for low-inventory items they can’t purchase online. This makes sense, but as a parent I also think it’s about parents craving the ritual of back to school shopping in store with your kids
  • Shopping all-in-one bundle deals. Back to School Kits are seeing a 115% increase in sales over last year. Nearly half of all parents have bought or plan on buying an all-in-one kit. These kits, like this 32-piece essentials kit from Amazon, are appealing to parents for their superior value. Parents are commonly buying these kits and then buying one-off supplies, on sale, at local big box stores to flush out the full list of needed supplies.
  • Forgoing non-learning essentials. Sales are down for lunch boxes (31%), pencil cases (11%), and first day of school signs (8%). Parents are making do with last year’s, or making homemade cases and signs.
  • Spending less on technology. Families are spending 20% less on technology like iPads, tablets, and laptops. Parents have already spent a significant amount on devices for e-learning over the past couple of years. Also, 81% of families surveyed by Deloitte say their child’s school provides students with technology devices.
Popular Back to School kit sold on Amazon

Barbiecore, Bucket Hats, and Belt Bags 

The average family spend for back to school clothing is anything but average. I’ve seen figures on Statista, The Street, and other sources suggesting a wild range of figures from $264 to $700.

While spend figures are all over the map, style trends are consistent. Barbiecore, bucket hats, and belt bags are everywhere. I’m not a fan of all, which may be a true sign I’m getting old.

>>> Related: Top Pre-School and Toddler Style Trends

Here are the back to school fashions families are buying for their K-12 kids:

1 | Barbiecore

Hot pink, according to fashion insiders at USA Today, is having a moment. Dubbed Barbiecore, this rosy trend is nod to the upcoming Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling movie. Bright pink emerged this summer as one of this season’s “It” colors and its popularity is still going strong. From sunglasses to hoodies to denim pants, solid pink looks are everywhere.

I’ll admit it: this craze has infiltrated my home. I’m just realizing that the last handful of items I’ve bought for the kids and me have all been heavy in magenta and bubble gum hues. We’re loving a pink oversized sweater, magenta wide-leg pants, a pink wrap dress, pink sunglasses, and a pink striped oversized tee – mostly worn with other prints and colors.

These barrel leg pants by Boden are a more school appropriate way to do Barbiecore pink than 6-inch heels and freakum dresses.

2 | Athleisure 

While I’m ready to kiss this trend good-bye, athleisure is the gift that won’t stop giving. This trend is looking a bit more polished. Matching sets are trending, like cropped tops and coordinating high waist pants. Styles look more like normal streetwear but it’s the same material used for yoga and bike commutes.


3 | Platform Shoes

Big chunky platform heels are in – at least for tween and teen girls’ footwear. Big as boat Doc Martens (like the kind I wore in the early aughts) are popular. And other more recent styles, like classic adidas sneakers, are being given a literal heel lift with a thicker sole to give a couple inches boost in height.


4 | Bucket Hats

Bucket hats are in. From the neck up, it’s cool for kids to look like Wilson from Home Improvement. All sorts of prints, patterns, and solids are available with reversible options being especially popular.

5 | Belt Bags

After the initial cringe of someone who lived through the fanny pack era, I’ve embraced the belt bag. For the past year, my belt bag has been glued to my hip (with the strap worn over my shoulder and not around my waist). The retro reboot is stylish and practical. It’s large enough to hold all your essentials and comes in a range of styles and materials. Most bags are small enough to be allowed into concert venues that ban purses. And I like carabine-clipping on my keys and hand sanitizer. Plus it’s perfect for when I am out biking.

6 | Wide Leg Pants 

While skinny jeans won’t fully disappear (and you can pry them off my cold, dead body), wide leg pants have taken center stage. You can find wide leg pants with an all over relaxed fit or in a more tailored cut with a fitted waist. This trend has made its way down to the toddler and pre-school ranks. Margot has a few wide leg pants in a 4T.

7 | Denim One-Pieces 

Think Rosie the Riveter style jumpsuits or mechanic suits. And also overalls, rompers, and dresses. 

8 | Tie Dye 

Tie dye is still holding out as a hip trend – both in large splashy sprints and more muted colors. You can even find cottagecore tie dye. 

9 | Oversized Sweaters and Sweatshirts

Comfy, oversize sweaters and sweatshirts are here to stay – at least through this fall and winter. Wearers are pairing them with denim shorts, wide leg pants, or biker shorts.

10 | Bomber Jackets

Bomber style jackets are back in and not just for teens. They’re back in for toddlers, kids and grown-ups too.

11 | Clogs

Clogs are cool. Croc clogs in particular. Style trend watchers say to look for these shoes to shine big in all their plastic glory donning Jibbitz charms.

12 | Bike Shorts 

Are bike shorts the new basic blue jeans? Maybe. Style experts praise them for their ultra versatility and recommend pairing them with boxy tees, chunky sweaters, hoodies, vests, oversized button downs, and even blazers.

Other Trends

Other popular back to school trends are Vans canvas slip-ons, Chuck Taylor high tops, white sneakers, or anything that resembles Cher Horowitz or a Clueless movie extra.

I’ll confess I’m having a hard time embracing the white sneaker trend. (I came of age when white sneakers were for loud American tourists “doing” Europe. Or senior center residents.) But Vogue’s list of perfect minimal white sneakers does have its allure. And I don’t hate the all-white Toddler styles – as long as someone else will come clean them for me.

>>> Related: Top 10 Stylish Finds to Score Now from Carter’s

Final Thoughts

My kids aren’t yet K-12 and I won’t experience the throes of true back to school shopping for a year or so. Once I do, I may have a different spin on shopping trends. Still. I do enjoy watching the changing style trends and stocking up on 99-cent Crayola markers at Target. Especially since it’s for little people who still think mom has “taste” and will wear whatever she picks out.

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