Shopping for back-to-school supplies is hard enough with one child. Dawn Stinner from the Town of Tonawanda has five.
She already has spent $375 and visited five different stores to find the more than 200 items she needed for her third-grader and her triplets in fifth grade. She won't even get her ninth-grader's list until after the first day of school.
The prices varied "from inexpensive to holy cow!" she said. The hunt for three green, one-and-a-half-inch binders was a particular thorn in her side.
"It was difficult to say the least," she said.
The frantic hunt for school supplies has plagued parents for as long as there have been graphing calculators and hot pink highlighters. But, just as consumers can now outsource their grocery shopping with online ordering; a new online alternative has emerged that does the school shopping for parents. It delivers the supplies in handy kits to the students' classrooms or right to their doors, and more and more school districts are getting on board.
The companies buy supplies in bulk, divvy them up according to individual class lists, box them and charge a flat fee per supply kit. And prices often come in cheaper than if shoppers were to gather the supplies themselves.
One of those companies is AbbaDoo & DylanToo, owned by Williamsville couple Deanna Farina and Anthony Carpenter. The company launched in April out of the owners' home and already serves 30 schools in Western New York.
Farina, who has three children and one step-child, has been pondering such a company since she began making frustrating shopping trips for her oldest child, who is now 21 years old.
"I was like, 'I wish someone else would do this. Why doesn't someone do this?' " she said. "And then I thought, 'Well, why don't I do it?' "
In April, the couple went for it. They launched the company out of their Williamsville home and signed contracts with 30 different schools and Parent Teacher Associations in Erie and Niagara counties. Since then, their dining, family and back rooms have been crammed with shelving units, stackable bins, crates and boxes. The whole family helps with the packaging, including the company's young namesakes, 10-year-old Abby and 9-year-old Dylan. Sometimes Farina's mother, friends and extended family pitch in for large orders, as was the case when the company got a last-minute call last week to fill 50 kits for one nearby school.
It has been a labor of love for the company's owners, who are also full-time nurses.
"We often pull all-nighters," Farina said.
But how are the prices?
The company tries to keep prices comparable to Walmart, while maintaining high quality and using specific brand names when they're requested by teachers, such as Expo markers and Fiskars scissors.
It succeeds, according to research by The News. For example, the company charges $95, with free delivery, for the 57-item, sixth-grade supply list from Amherst Middle School. Fulfilling the same list with the cheapest available items at Walmart using current pricing would cost $107.55. That's a savings of $12.55, and doesn't take into consideration the time saved navigating out-of-stocks, last-minute crowds and rigid teacher spec requirements.
Supply packaging is not a new concept. Milwaukee-based School-Pak, for example, has been doing it since 1991. AbbaDoo & DylanToo competes in an increasingly crowded sector with such national companies such as Staples-owned SchoolKidz and Colorado's Edu-Kit. There are also college supply companies that contract with colleges to package dorm supplies such as bedding that are specifically selected to meet college space and safety requirements.
But the local company adds personal touches it hopes will differentiate it from other large, corporate supply companies. Farina and Carpenter hand deliver each box for free. And when the company receives nice feedback from a customer online, Dylan makes a batch of slime and sends a bit of it to the customer as a thank-you gift.
Other locals have gotten in on the action, too. Hyatt's on Main Street fulfills supply lists for art and architecture students at schools such as the University at Buffalo, SUNY Buffalo State and Erie Community College. Delivery is a flat $20 fee. Some Western New York schools order supplies in bulk and package the list-specific supplies for students themselves for sale in their school stores.
AbbaDoo's local ownership was a selling point for the PTA at Thomas A. Edison Elementary School in the Town of Tonawanda. Being small and local means that, if problems arise, a solution is just a phone call away. Gennie Vitko, president of the school's PTA, said she has heard great things about the company from parents and will recommend the school use them again next year.
Dawn Stinner, the Town of Tonawanda mom of five, said she will order supply delivery next year, too.
"The cost savings and time savings is worth it," she said. "After the runaround this year, I just don't want to take the time away from my family."