BY Smriti Sinha
High-tech devices have replaced many traditional back-to-school items this year, with more middle and high school students opting for e-readers over bulky books and choosing flash drives over loose leaf notebook paper, several retailers in Midtown West said.
“The tablet world has changed how people are learning,” said Marc Tolentino, a manager at the Staples store on 34th Street and 5th Avenue, adding that tablet sales at his store have gone up by 30 percent compared to last year’s back-to-school season, while sales of e-readers have doubled. “Tablets are cheaper [than laptops], portable, easy to use, and compatible with virtually everything,” said Tolentino. “Students prefer to download their course books, newspapers and articles on e-readers.” Nearly half of middle and high school students use either a smartphone or tablet, according to a study conducted last year by the Pew Research Center, a Washington think tank.
Amro Hamid, another Midtown West Staples manager and a 13-year veteran of the back-to-school rush, said sales of e-readers, tablets and scientific calculators go up by 30 to 40 percent during this season, and that two-thirds of those buying technology at his store are high school students. Smartphones have become back-to-school shopping tools this fall, according to research by Placed, a company that surveyed 12,000 Americans and found that almost two in five parents used their phones to comparison shop while making purchases at a store.
The affordability of external memory has also made it a hot-selling item. “Couple of years back, a 16 GB flash drive would cost about a $100,” said Tolentino. “This year, you can get it for $9.” In fact, flash drives in the form of the Angry Bird are the most popular new release at Staples this season. Americans are spending the biggest portion of their back-to-school budget on electronics this year, at $350 per household on average, according to a nationwide survey by National Research Foundation, the world’s largest retail trade association.
Gina Cavazzini, who was shopping at Staples with her 13-year-old daughter Gianna and 16-year-old son Christopher, said that toner ink is the biggest add-on to their back-to-school spending. “All their assignments have to be typed and printed now,” she said. “We end up finishing one toner every month, and that wasn’t the case a couple of years back.”
Gianna’s class keeps e-textbooks in different folders on their class computers. Xavier’s High School in the Flatiron district has allowed Christopher to bring a tablet to school. Making classrooms technology-friendly has meant a slump in backpack sales. “Book bags have seen a big slowdown,” said Tolentino, adding that some of the deepest discounts this season are on backpacks. “Two years ago, thousands would go away in a week. Now it’s just a couple hundred. And the girls have started using purses in school.”
Chelsea’s A. I. Friedman, which sells 20 percent more cases for electronic devices during back-to-school months, starting from as low as $20, also has maximum discounts at this time. The store’s manager, Christine Starico, said that she sells an average of 24 “cable drops” each week at this time of year. The button-like attachments, which hold power cords in place, are popular among parents preparing to send their kids back to school, Starico said.
Several store managers in Midtown West agreed that technology has also made a lot of old-school office supplies dated. Sales of diaries, address books and planners at Paper Presentation in Chelsea have fallen 20 percent over the last few years, a manager there said. The store hasn’t even sold out its stock of calendars from last year. “People don’t buy these things anymore because their smartphone can scream and shout and whistle to remind them of school dates,” said Hamid, adding that almost no one buys dictionaries anymore.
But even as high-tech gizmos dominate back-to-school lists, some more traditional items remain. This year’s “One Direction” collection at Office Depot has become a must-have on a lot of girls’ checklists. Close-up shots of teenaged members of the English-Irish band peer out of notebooks, binders and other accessories with the tag “study-buddies.” A floor assistant at Office Depot said that the week before Labor Day, the entire aisle sold out in one day. Another employee at the register estimated that the store sells around 7,000 items from the collection every week. And the old-school habit of buying pencils is still in fashion: “They are like candies in a store,” Hamid said. “No one leaves without them.”