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Sticking with staples; Parents seek no-frills school supplies amid weak economy

FARGO - Life is full of compromises - a lesson learned before school this year by Abby Kautzman.

The 10-year-old was in negotiations on an early morning this week: the regular, 24-pack of standard orange pencils versus the small pack of multicolored mechanical ones. The former was so uncool. But the latter: twice the price.

"I compromised on an extra box of markers," said chief negotiator and mom, Stephanie Kautzman.

The family is part of a growing number of back-to-school shoppers sticking to tighter budgets this


A national survey released last week by Deloitte LLP shows the Kautzmans aren't the only ones negotiating in store aisles - 71 percent of people surveyed said they plan to spend less on back-to-school items this year. In addition, 90 percent said they will change the way they shop for school items - whether it's by sticking to sale items or only buying the essentials.

The Kautzmans are recycling last year's backpacks and pencil boxes, and opting for cheaper school supplies.

Nearby, 9-year-old Calista Heley clutched a bright pink plastic Hanna Montana backpack with the pop star's smiling face on the front - one of this year's hot items. But mom's quick shake of the head sent her right back to aisle shelves.

Sister, 8-year-old Katelyn, swooped in with her own attempt, followed by pleading: "But this is cute."

Mom, Elaine, didn't budge.

"I'm kind of frugal," she said, adding she's buying fewer clothes for her three school-age daughters and only buying school supplies on Lidgerwood Public School's list this year. "If we've (already) got 'em, I cross them off my list."

Last week's survey by Deloitte LLP - a professional services firm - was conducted by an independent research company. They attributed this year's trend to pessimistic, cash-strapped consumers hit hard by a poor economy; higher gas and food prices mean back-to-school shopping is taking the back-burner.

In the study, respondents said they'll still continue to buy the essentials - paper, pencils, notebooks, clothes, shoes and backpacks. But a majority said they'll cut back on those purchases, with 83 percent planning to spend less on clothes and one-third spending less on supplies.

While it's still early in the school shopping season - it peaks mid-August - the retail forecast doesn't worry area store managers.

"We certainly haven't seen any slowdown," said Target Manager Jeff Fisher. "We've had great traffic here."

Plus, he added, school supplies are a necessity.

"Back to school is back to school," Fisher said. "It's not something people have a choice about."

Office Max Manager Jim Lahren added he thinks the area will be immune to the national trends.

Gerry Macintosh, chairman of the North Dakota State University management, marketing and finance department, agreed the area's financial stability will help - if only a little.

"Our local economy is better, but I still think that with high gas and food prices - especially at the lower economic end - you're going to see some effect there," Macintosh said. "Everything you put in your shopping cart affects everything else."

And for the Kautzmans, that means sticking to last year's backpack, which 10-year-old Abby thinks is still cool.

Her mom added that it would be nice for Abby to have a new one - it's just not going to happen this year.