Thursday, August 16, 2012

School Supplies

Pre-packaged school supply "kits". Exactly the items, sizes, brands that each teacher wants. Delivered right to a child's desk on the first day of school. No running from store to store. No stores running out of a coveted item. Sounds like a working mom's dream, right?

I severely dislike the pre-packaged school supply kits. (Hate is a strong word).

Both schools that our kids have attended have offered them. The previous school tried at first to talk up the idea as supporting a local business, and a time saver, and all that.  By last year they went so far as to not handing out school supply lists--just a link to a website (and if you wanted to "roll your own" you had to decipher the third-party company's cryptic descriptions of the items in the kit).  New year, new school, same routine. Well, they did provide us with a list (using fully spelled out words instead of product codes). Though, as we found out today, there were one or two items left off the list that came in the pre-assembled pack.

But I'm still not buying.

Call me crazy (maybe). Call me stingy (frequently).  Call me a control freak (uh...)

I like shopping for my kids' school supplies. When the giant bins of folders and crayons and glue sticks go up in the big box stores, I rub my hands together with glee. Hey, shopping is fun.

But it's more than that. Those kits are not a good deal. At both schools, the packaged kit costs about double what I spend buying the exact same items from a local big box store. For the last school, several of the items in the kits didn't need to be replaced every year. Scissors, rulers, pencil cases (mileage may vary on that one). Even some of the heavy-duty plastic folders were in like-new shape at the end of the year--the ones that stayed in the classroom and out of the backpack.

I guess when you try to work the whole "support local cottage industry" angle, it sounds very politically correct to pay up. But it is NOT local business if they have to ship the kits from a warehouse in another state.

I know that big box stores sell their packs of crayons for a quarter and pocket folders for a dime at back-to-school-time in order to drive foot traffic to the stores to buy higher-priced goods like clothes and shoes. It's a loss leader, designed to make a buck elsewhere and buy customer loyalty. 

But I can buy half a dozen packs of crayons at their loss (and throw a few in the "Books and Backpacks" charity bin at work, or donate them to the scout troop, or just keep them on hand for rainy days and the middle of winter when the school demands a replacement and the stores are once again charging $2.79).

I don't need a personal shopper to go dig through the back-to-school-sale aisles, I don't need to pay shipping costs to get pencils from the store to the school, and I don't like having to pay a premium for those services. Maybe next I should pay someone to eat some chocolate for me. (Ok, shopping for school supplies isn't that fun, but still...maybe if the school supply kits would slip me an extra pack of graph paper to doodle on, or a pretty purple notebook for scribbling notes to myself, or one of the other little perks of doing my own shopping then I wouldn't feel so grumpy about it).

I would feel better about the price of the school supply kits if 1) the school themselves, or the PTA or parent volunteers were assembling them as a fundraiser for the school or 2) The cost of the kit was similar to what I would spend at the big box store. After all, the big (and not terribly local) school supply kit companies should be buying crayons and pencils by the pallet at a serious discount, so they ought to be less than $2.79 a pack.

Better yet, just hide the cost of the school supplies in the tuition fees (we're only talking $25-40 at the elementary school level--my kids go to a parish school, so I already pay tuition), and quit sending home a list at all. Then the schools can support whatever business they want to with their dollars, choose whatever supplies they prefer, and no kid shows up at school with 10 markers when they should have 8, or, worse, with none.


Rebecca Katz said...

I hear where you're coming from. In fact, I agree with you about 98%. But to offer counter-arguments:

1. When I was a kid, I remember begging my parents for a 48-count box of crayons instead of 24. Never mind the 64 count box; only the really cool kids had those. And the folders with cartoon characters instead of plain old blue or green. In other words: just like uniforms are in some cases intended to minimize differences in who has what designer jeans/shoes/etc, the prepacked school supplies mean some kids don't feel bad because their parents don't think they need 48 crayons or erasable pens.

2. When I had my foster daughter, I got a list of school supplies from the school system. I went out and did the best I could to find the very specific items on the list. We went to school on the first day with her supplies, only to be handed a list by her teacher of completely different items. Prepackaged school supply kits? Sign me up!

Kristi Lea said...

I remember my mom stressing over finding the right brand of paints or the right count of markers or colored pencils (and i"m one of 5..I imagine it was pretty annoying). When I first heard about the kits, I thought it was an awesome idea (forgetting, temporarily, that I quite like the "thrill of the hunt" when it comes to shopping....)

I try to get exactly what is listed on the sheet, down to the exact colors of folders (and with/without the grommets in the middle, plastic vs paper). If other parents buy cartoon characters, that's their perrogative. I'll buy the fun stuff for use at home :)

I wouldn't really mind buying the package of exactly the right school supplies if I didn't add up the prices myself and realize that it was a rip-off (compared to sale prices this time of year anyway)

I heard at the last school that when they first went to the supply kits, that the parents group organized them. But then they decided that it was a lot of work and decided to go with a third-party company. I probably wouldn't have minded spending an extra $20 knowing that the difference becomes a donation to the school...I just don't like donating to for-profit companies :)

And I hear from my daughter's teacher this year that she didn't actually know what all was on the supply list and/or in the kit..apparently the lists are put together by last years teachers, and the staff changes a bit from year to year.