Discount Stores: The School Supply Picture

School supplies have long been a staple at discount stores, many of which have been open throughout the pandemic. But is there increased interest in these supplies now with children learning at home? And what practices are stores taking to stay safe and operational? For this article, store staff members weighed in on the topic.
At Discount Depot in Phoenix, Ariz., Manager John Preston said he has not seen any newly increased interest in his store’s wide variety of school supplies, which include items such as notebooks, backpacks, headphones, lunch boxes, lunch bags, pencils and pens and binders. “It is the same or maybe lower than usual What has been doing well for us are patio furniture and small appliances as well as cleaning supplies, and with everyone at home, home improvement items are still big,” he explained.
Preston is keeping employees safe in a variety of ways. “We do have masks for employees, and people visit us primarily by appointment or for pick-up of items they’ve ordered online,” he noted. “If they come to the door without an appointment, and they know what they want, then we take them right to the spot where an item is. We feel that you can’t let people in who don’t know what they want and have just come to look around. If they are going store to store just browsing, he or she is a high risk. But if they know what they want, yes, we will take in customers, limiting that to 10 people in the store at a time.” With 18,000-square-feet in the store, that allows for plenty of social distancing, too. “This is how we do it, our doors are closed, they ring, and we ask what they are looking for or if they’d just come to pick something up. Some people pay online, some pay here. We have curbside as well as in-store pick-up.”
Preston said that for the future, “We foresee things staying much the same unless the virus goes away or there is a vaccine in place. We do decently; we obviously could do much better if we opened our doors to everyone, but we are not going to jeopardize our employees or other customers to make more sales.”
In Nashville, Tenn., Kameron Young, cashier at Roses Express Discount relates that while people are buying some school supplies at his store, it’s summer fun items such as inflatable pools, water guns, and paper plates that people are really after at this discount retail outpost. When it comes to school supplies, he said, “We do see people getting a lot of notebooks, but other than that, we do not see huge sales in things like binders, folders, traceable ABCs or pens and erasers,” he said. The store carries all those items, however.
Roses Express Discount keeps employees safe in a variety of ways, Young asserted. “We’re required to wear masks, and we are behind plexiglass shields at registers. Our maximum allowed in the store is 69 people, but we rarely get anything like that. We’ve never had to lock the doors and get people out first before letting anyone new in.” Sales are brisk but not overwhelming, he said. “I think it will stay this way for the foreseeable future. We keep ourselves safe and make sure people coming in are social distancing, too.”
Katie Carter, assistant manager at Simply Deals Discount Store in Portland, Ore., has also not seen any increased interest in school supplies. She related that the store carries “backpacks, notebooks, pens and pencils, glues, all of that. But, I am not seeing any increase because of kids being schooled in the home. We sell everything and anything, but we were not considered an essential store, so we only recently opened-up. What I am seeing that sells more at the moment are yard and garden items, snack items, and things that can be used for home projects such as extension cords,” she noted. Carter added, “Kids are not even coming into the store yet; and no parents that I have seen are buying school supplies. As far as purchases for the kids, it’s mostly toy-type things, particularly backyard toys and things like that to keep them busy. Backyard pool items are also big for us.”
To keep staff members safe, Carter pointed out, “We are in a county that is still not fully open, so we have very strict guidelines to follow right now. There are only a few stores open in our district. We have all our employees wearing masks. We have signage everywhere about distancing and masks; we have plexiglass up for protecting the register area, and markers on the floor as to standing distance. We are also only open reduced hours to allow for more cleaning.”
At Sweet Discounts in Sacramento, Calif., Owner Augustine Hernandez said his store is doing well, including on sales of school supplies. However, the interest level in these items is, he attested, “The same as usual in getting those kinds of items. People come in and buy them, but they were always coming in and buying those items as well as many others. I work with Costco, and we get their returns, we get their overstock.” According to Hernandez, “In school supplies we have binders, pens and pencils, backpacks, all of those things.”
Employee safety comes down to Hernandez himself. “It’s only me that works. I wear a mask and have hand sanitizer around. I have a bathroom that is always clean for people to wash their hands.” Additionally, his 2,000-square-foot store limits the number of people allowed inside. “The most I have ever had inside recently is like 9 or 10 people.” That said, the store is remaining busy.
It’s a very different story at the Outlet Store in Ketchikan, Alaska. Manager Stephanie Hughes said the 11,000-square-foot store is closed for the present. “None of the shops in Ketchikan are open right now. No one buys most of the things we carry, unless they are tourists.” However, she said, the store will be able to return profitably in the future. “I have a feeling that the cruise industry will be back, but not this year. We will reopen at that time.” And, she noted, “While we sell pens and pencils and journals, they are more geared for adults than children.”
Across the board, the shops that carry a lot of school supplies are not seeing any marked increase in sales for these items at this time; safety features are solidly in place if stores are open; and stores remain able to draw in customers searching for a good buy.

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