Can Race, Ethnicity, or Cultural Tradition Impact Your Back to School Shopping Style?

I don’t think we formally went back to school shopping this year. We got new books, some binders, and some folders, but we already had crayons, pencils, paper, notebooks, markers, glue, paint, construction paper, and other supplies, left over from last year.  That is the great thing about homeschooling.  Whatever you don’t use – is still on the shelf.  When it comes to clothes, the kids really don’t have anyone to impress.  We aren’t so much concerned about being seen in a certain brand or style, but more about finding out if pants and jeans are going to be high waters because of summer growth spurts that went unnoticed during a summer of wearing shorts.  We don’t get to backpacks, lunch boxes, or any of that, because as long as it still works, they’ll use it.

When I was growing up, back to school shopping was never a big deal. For the most part, it was about finding the sale.  I remember being one of the only kids in my class who didn’t come to school dressed to the nines on the first day.  My hair was done, and my clothes fit, but they were definitely not brand new on the first day.  It wasn’t that I didn’t grow over the summer, but the price of clothing took a significant dive right after Labor Day.  My mom would combine our vacation to Hilton Head, which at the time was the closest place to where we lived that had a decent outlet mall, with back to school shopping.  So we came back to school with new clothes… eventually… by the time we had new gear though, the newness of back to school had worn off, and no one noticed my fresh sneakers or brand new neon socks.

Back then, name brand school supplies were status symbols! You didn’t just get a notebook, you got a 5 Star notebook.  Well, my notebooks weren’t 5 Star brand… even though I pointed her to the commercial that showed just how tough the notebooks were.  “Allyuh plan tuh do alladat wit de notebook? I eh payin no tree dullas fuh notebook.” So she got me notebooks, but they just said, “5 Subject Notebook” on the cover… a cover that would be missing in about 5 weeks (honestly, the 5 Star notebooks held up better – from what I could see from my classmates school supplies).

You didn’t just need a binder with folders and dividers, but you needed a Trapper Keeper. Well, I have a Caribbean mom who was just fine with something that functioned in nearly the same way as the name brand school supplies.  So we had the binders she used for work… just plain red, blue, or green – no design of any kind, no 80’s and early 90’s bright colors, nothing.  We also had the dividers and tabs that she used at work – not exciting and colorful like the ones that came with the Trapper Keeper.  No units of measurement and conversion charts listed conveniently on the inside of the Trapper Keeper folder. She just got that extra boring, nondescript color of office supply folders and dividers in the 80’s… manila. I am convinced that the colors “manila” is a mashup of “meh” and “vanilla.” When she was feeling fancy, we got the plain color folders. Not the shiny ones, or the ones with psychedelic kittens wrapped in rainbows riding on unicorns on the cover. No. Just folders… folders that held papers… inevitably the papers it held were pages that ended up falling out of my cheap notebook.

I am pretty sure that her upbringing in Trinidad had a lot to do with her back to school shopping habits. The newness of the school clothes and supplies was not the focus – it was just having what you needed. Well, in America the culture is to fit in.  I wanted to fit in – especially at school – since I was one of maybe two or three brown children in the schools I attended.  My mom did, however, make sure that we had a computer at home, at a time when most homes had no computer, unlike today when each person in a home has access to or owns some sort of computer or smart phone. I guess that made up for the less than durable office binders and manila folders.

I don’t know if my mom’s Caribbean background, and my Caribbean-American upbringing affected the way that I deal with school supplies now, but looking at the research, but maybe my methods do parallel African American spending habits.  Let’s take a look at these Back-to-School Facts from Nielsen.

“African-Americans shoppers spend slightly more (5%) on private label (store brand) office/school supplies than their non-Hispanic white counterparts.”

I may have single handedly boosted this statistic. Like my mom, to me, a notebook is a notebook, paper is paper, and a binder is a binder. Names on school supplies mean nothing to me when it comes to buying for my littles.

Lower to middle income African-American households spend the most on private label or store brand office/school supplies.  Seems like the more money African American back to school shoppers earn, the less they spend on store brand school supplies.

Nielsen found that, “Black households making under $30K spent 17% more; households making $30 – $49K spent 13% more; households making $50K – 69K spent 9% more than their non-Hispanic white households at the same income levels.”

This was unexpected.  I guess it makes sense if you think about the fact that higher income equals a greater ability to spend money on name brand school supplies.

Now this was really interesting. “Higher income African-American households who make $100K+ spend 28% more on private label or store brand office/school supplies on deal –using a store coupon, store sale or a specialty sale –than their non-Hispanic white counterparts in the same income bracket.”

There are a number of ways to interpret these statistics. The results made me wonder…


  • Do African Americans buy more store brand school supplies because they value education more than other groups and feel like they can do more, get more while spending less money if they don’t spend money on the name brand supplies?
  • Do African American back to school shoppers value education less than other groups, and therefore do not spend the money to get name brand supplies which are marketed as superior to off brand or store brand supplies.  Maybe African American back to school shoppers feel that education is not worth the extra expense?
  • Do African Americans see school supplies as products whose value and utility in the education of their children is tied to the brand’s claim of functional superiority, or do African Americans feel that the brand of the tool is not as important as the skill with which their students use it.
  • Do African Americans see name brand school supplies as symbols of status that are indicators of success similar to luxury cars and high fashion clothing, or do their relatively low cost and low visibility in the community make off brand or store brands acceptable.
  • Do African Americans who make more money spend more on the actual education, and less on the school supplies, or does a higher income equal more education which translates into more savvy shopping practices?
  • Do African American Back to School shoppers spend less and purchasing store brand school supplies because they are spending more on other name brand items?
  • Are African American parents are spending more on technology like ipads and laptops than they do on notebooks, pens, and pencils because spending more on technology in today’s society just makes more sense?


I can only speak for our household, and I can tell you that we spend more time, money, and effort on making sure that the kids have the information that they need to use the tools that we purchase in such a way that the thickness of the cover on the notebook, the trendiness of the binder, and the color of the folder has no effect on the quality of their education.  In the Caribbean tradition, we value education, but if you can get more for less? Store brand it is.

What decision making process do you go through when you are deciding whether to get name brand school supplies versus store brand?  Do you buy what your kids want, what they need, what is easiest on your wallet, or all of the above?

Tell me in the comments below or share your thoughts on Back to School shopping with me on Twitter! Tweet your answer to @socamomdc and @nielsenknows.