Kris Papiernik and Kia Griffin took their great-nephew Sayyid Ishon Griffin to shop for first-grade school supplies and seek out anything with prints of his favorite superhero, the Black Panther. Luckily, a variety of retailers had the 6-year-old's dream gear.
They found a backpack from Macy's, a lunchbox from Amazon, a tin pencil box from Walmart and folders and composition books at Target. Everything they purchased – pencils, rulers, sharpeners – was in Black Panther-themed colors of black and silver. "Shon," as his friends call him, packed it all up for his first day at his Northeast Philadelphia elementary school.
"Black Panther, when the movie came out, he was a superhero, he was a cat, he was African, just the whole combination, he went crazy and he's been obsessed with Black Panther since," said Papiernik, 36. "Black Panther gets to tag along with him to school. ... It makes him feel very confident, very strong and just helps him focus, and he just loves it."
This season, young students snapped up superhero backpacks with matching lunchboxes, like Shon's, or ones with sequins, said Stacey Keating, spokesperson for CBL Properties, the retail real estate firm in Chattanooga, Tenn. As students age, they prefer more simple backpacks, such as those from North Face or Herschel. Across all ages, puff ball keychains that attach to backpacks and purses have been popular, too.
As far as the superheroes, "it has been a trend that continues to grow with all of the Marvel movies that continue to come out," Keating said. "It's really just a huge pop culture thing right now."
Experts predicted that Philadelphia-area parents would spend more than the national average for those new backpacks, clothes and supplies for K-12 students, and most parents feel their financial status is better or the same as last year, according to a recent Deloitte poll of 400 parents in this area.
Deloitte found that these Philadelphia-area parents, with at least one child in K-12 this fall, would spend an average of $543 compared to the $510 U.S. average and $568 Northeast U.S. average.
The Philadelphia shopper typically spends more than the national average, said William Park, Greater Philadelphia retail leader at Deloitte & Touche LLP. "They're a little more digitally involved and they tend to look for deals more."
But a separate survey of 1,000 parents of school-age children by local real estate research firm JLL found that about 62 percent of parents – more than last year – would spend less than $250 on back-to-school shopping.
The National Retail Federation, predicted consumers will spend $27.5 billion on K-12 shopping and $55.4 billion on college supplies. NRF CEO Matthew Shay attributed the strong season expectations for spending to "consumer confidence" and a "thriving" economy.
Papiernik estimates they spent about $250 on back-to-school gear for Shon because they searched for bargains at multiple retailers and compared pricing.
Target knows that finding school supplies that reflect students' personality or desires helps make them feel more confident. For this season, Target noted certain backpack trends took hold, such as "seafoam green" becoming a top trending color, and a preference for anything with unicorns and other popular prints including mermaids, tie dye, pineapples and reversible sequins, said company spokesperson Meghan Roman.
Backpacks are one of the ways students can show off their personality as they head back to class, and Target makes sure to have a diverse assortment, all able to fit a standard file folder. At Target, the assortment of backpacks includes those owned by brands such as Cat & Jack, character backpacks, Trans by JanSport, C9 Champion and Swiss gear for tweens and teens.
"We're all about making it easy for busy families and that's through the right assortment at the right price and making it easy to get what they need," Roman said.
A lot of styles from the '90s are popping up this year, Keating said, such as destroyed denim, high-rise jeans and shorts, raw hemlines and overalls. Slip-on Vans or similar shoes have also been popular, she said. The company's properties were seeing strong sales from Apple products, especially tablets.
A similar view came from Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which owns the Cherry Hill and Plymouth Meeting Malls. Fall prints and colors – rose gold, metallic and animal prints – along with checkered sneakers, a variety of denim, and color-changing sequins on backpacks and on clothing are some of the back-to-school trends PREIT noted.
Most Philadelphia area shoppers planned to visit mass merchants for back-to-school needs and 45 percent planned to use online only retailers, Deloitte found. The other stores they visit varies by income, with high earners ($100,000-plus) also spending at department stores, middle income ($50,000 to $99,000) shopping at fast-fashion retailers, and low income frequenting off-price stores. The JLL survey showed Walmart and Target as the top retailers for back-to-schoolers and found that more than half of parents planned to visit just one or two stores.
Even with the rise of e-commerce, the Deloitte survey noted a plateauing in the use of electronics to shop. Nationally, 59 percent of people said they used their desktop or laptop for shopping in 2016. This fell to 57 percent in 2017 and 49 percent this year.
Deloitte's Park said this use of technology led him to wonder: "Have we reached a digital saturation point" for consumers using smartphones or computers or plumbing social media to find out what everyone is buying?
"Their dependence on digital seemed to have plateaued," Park said of shoppers.