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Back-to-School Divide: $195 Headbands and $1 Glue Sticks

As the income gap in the United States has widened, luxury and discount retailers have become increasingly deft at drawing people at separate ends of the income spectrum.

The back-to-school season is the second-biggest shopping period of the year, behind Christmas. But while families will spend more than before, how they will do it — and where they will do it — varies widely.

A growing list of designer notebooks, luxury desk accessories and even beanbag chairs now caters to wealthy back-to-school shoppers. Shoppers can buy a $195 Gucci headband, a $572 Versace backpack and a $28 Terez pencil case on the back-to-school section of Saks’ website. Restoration Hardware has a new “teen” line that includes a $2,000 “riveted aluminum” desk and $250 faux fur beanbag chairs.

Ms. Martis said she expected Kate Spade’s desk accessories and stationery products to be a big focus this season, projecting that sales would rise 7 percent this quarter at stores open at least a year. (The company said it could not make executives available for an interview.)

But back-to-school items are also expected to buoy sales at discount retailers like T. J. Maxx, whose appeal is increasingly wide and which aim at the growing number of poor students and families in the United States.

In 2007, about nine million public school students came from low-income households, according to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. In 2014, there were more than 11 million, according to the most recent data.

Some of these families rely on backpack drives and other support from nonprofit or community groups. Many, though, are left seeking the best deals.

Retailers, including the discount stores, have responded by pushing bigger promotions earlier in the shopping season. That, in turn, has seemed to push people to do research on their own: Back-to-school search queries rose sharply the week of July 11, a full week earlier than last year, according to data released recently by Google.

Some stores have also used tax-free holidays to encourage shopping. Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, provided a list of tax-free holidays by state, along with all the school-related items to which they would apply.

One big back-to-school item this year: uniforms. Many retailers are promoting them heavily, like Target, which has promoted half-off prices on uniforms.

“Our people said that whether it’s Burlington or Target or J. C. Penney or Sears, the uniform section was the hottest part of the competitive space for back to school,” said Craig Johnson, the president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consulting group. “About twice as many stores this year as last are doing specials on uniforms.”

Retailers who cater to middle-class consumers have been struggling, slashing prices in what has become an aggressive race to the bottom. Sales at traditional department stores have slumped, and once-mighty institutions like Macy’s and Sears have had to close stores.

Some retailers have cast a wider net. Jamie Nordstrom, the president of Nordstrom stores, a legacy department store trying to adapt to new consumer tastes, said it had found consumers to want a variety of prices. So for back-to-school, the retailer offers a mix: a $495 Burberry girls’ cross-body bag, next to a $32 backpack and a set of $17 gel pens.

“We don’t think about it as a high-end shopper and a low-end shopper,” Mr. Nordstrom said. “Most people, as they’re living today, they’re wearing high-end and low-end at the same time.”

The income gap plays out in other ways for students, too.

Supply lists can vary widely — it is not uncommon to see USB flash drives, graphing calculators or pocket dictionaries in many wealthier districts. And budget cuts have forced many schools to rely more on parents for what would once have been considered essentials: things like construction paper, tissues or pencils.

“They want like four boxes of crayons, 48 pencils,” said Natalie Pumphrey, a 33-year-old single mother of five from San Antonio, Tex. “I’m having trouble buying school supplies for my own children, and I feel like I’m buying for the whole class.”

Factor in extracurricular activities and the difference between the money spent by high- and low-income students is even starker, said Brent Wilder, the corporate public relations director for Huntington National Bank. The company has analyzed back-to-school supply lists from about 30 schools in Ohio and surrounding states every year for the last decade.

This year, Huntington estimates that the families of elementary-school-age students will be expected to pay for an average of $659 worth of supplies and fees, while high school students will need $1,498. That is up from $351 and $894 in 2007, the first year the bank began doing the survey.

The expenses can go much higher, though. “I’ve seen districts that have $1,500 band fees,” Mr. Wilder said.

But the point of the survey, he says, is to make sure people — especially at the lower-income levels — know what they will be facing.

“We really wanted to highlight to consumers in our markets that this was an expense that they needed to plan for,” Mr. Wilder said. “They literally cannot afford to buy classroom supplies and pay all of their bills if they don’t plan ahead.”

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