Pencils, books, but no more dirty looks

Jim Norman of Buford, Ga., called back-to-school shopping with his five kids horrible last year. "People were fighting over the last notebooks and pens," he says. "I took the last glue stick from a bin, and someone snatched it from my hand."

Norman and his wife, Paula, were so frustrated with back-to-school shopping that this year they started the School Supplies Network, a company which bundles kits of school supplies. "We were just tired of the hassle and knew there had to be a better solution," Jim Norman says.

Many parents are experiencing the headaches of preparing the nation's 55.8 million kids to return to the classroom. As school supply lists get longer and more specific, many are using alternatives — some from retailers, others prompted by schools and parent organizations — to the long searches for notebooks and colored pencils.

The back-to-school season is the second-most-important selling period for retailers, behind the November-December holiday season. Families say they expect to spend an average $563.49 on back-to-school shopping this year, with total spending reaching about $18 billion, according to a survey conducted by BIGresearch for the National Retail Federation.

Retailers are trying to make back-to-school shopping easier. Some, including Kmart and Office Depot, display local school supply lists in their stores. Staples subsidiary, working with parent-teacher organizations, bundles supplies and delivers them to children's desks the first day of school. Earlier this month, Crayola brought teachers to Wal-Mart stores to help parents buy school supplies. Some parent-teacher organizations sell packages of school supplies which parents can pick up before the year starts.

Angela and Steve Swicegood of Charlotte, have bought kits from their son's school ever since they experienced a harrowing search for a fat pencil used to teach kids how to write. "Even when we did find them, they had these evil-looking cartoons on them," Steve Swicegood said. "It's worth it to purchase the kits."

Families of many college students can buy computers and supplies directly from universities. Every year, Ohio State University mails ads for bed sheets, linens and carpets from the company Residence Hall Linens Program. About 2,500 of the 8,800 OSU students living on campus buy their dorm room supplies this way each year, says Valdez Russell, adviser for OSU's Residence Halls Advisory Council, which runs the program as a fundraiser.

The Residence Hall Linens Program sells dormitory supplies at more than 850 colleges across the country, according to the company's website.

About 57% of college students said they expect to purchase back-to-school merchandise in college bookstores this year, BIGresearch found. While textbooks are the biggest seller at college stores, about 15% of their sales are school supplies and computer merchandise, according to the National Association of College Stores.

Dana Kalal of Southlake, Texas, bought a Hewlett-Packard Notebook 6320 through Purdue University, where her son will study accounting this fall. She chose to buy through the university because the company already configured the computer for Purdue's network. "It'll make his life easier," Kalal said.

Some parents aren't ready to abandon traditional shopping. Kimberley Sirk of Hudson, Ohio, prefers to browse through stores for linens and back-to-school supplies for her daughter, a student at Ohio's Bowling Green State University. "We like being able to feel the material and match the sheets and linens that we need," Sirk said.

But shopping doesn't appeal to others. This year, the School Supplies Network took orders for about 2,800 supply kits, three times more than the Normans thought they would sell. While most kits were bought by local Georgia schools, the company has received orders from Colorado, Alabama, Virginia and Hawaii.

"This gives people another day of summer to do something they want to do, instead of shopping for school supplies," Paula Norman says.