In our world of scarce resources and great need, nonprofits face a tradeoff between the number and quality of items purchased. The lower the cost of supplies, the more children can be helped. The higher the cost, the fewer the children. Although cost is an overriding consideration for nonprofits, it is equally important to consider the quality of the supplies purchased.
In a recent meeting with one of our suppliers, our contact was telling us about a visit to a low income family’s home. She noticed that the children were carrying their books and supplies in their arms – while their backpacks hung up unused on the wall. These backpacks were given to them at a local backpack give-away event, similar to many other events around the country. When asked why the kids weren’t using the backpack, the mother simply replied that those backpacks weren’t strong enough to handle the day-to-day wear and tear. So instead, her children carried everything in their arms!
At Roonga, we decided to put some low-cost backpacks to the test. We selected a number of backpacks sent to us by vendors hoping to work with us. We gave these backpacks to a few kids (and one adult) and monitored their progress over time. Below is a list of issues we found. Keep in mind that this was by no means a scientific test – it’s quite possible that a few of these backpacks were just lemons. Nevertheless, these are actual problems encountered by real kids using low cost backpacks sent to us for evaluation.
- Shoulder Strap Seams: Quite unexpectedly, one of the backpack’s shoulder straps started unraveling at the seams after approximately 3 weeks of use. Pretty quickly, almost the entire seam up and down the shoulder strap unraveled, allowing the foam padding to protrude. Although the rest of the backpack seemed quite durable and usable, the child returned the backpack and requested to try another.
- Shoulder Strap Buckles: Another unexpected problem! One of the buckles at the end of a shoulder strap cracked and broke. This meant that the entire shoulder strap was no longer usable – it could no longer cinch down and hold the backpack in place. This issue arose after the backpack was in use for less than 2 weeks.
- Water Bottle Pockets: Many backpacks now include one or more mesh pockets, which are great for water bottles. Across multiple backpacks, the mesh pockets were not durable – especially those that were entirely mesh (versus being sewn into a piece of cloth at the bottom of the pocket). With one backpack, the child continued to put his water bottle in the pocket and at the same time tried to hold the water bottle in place with his hand to prevent it from falling through. You could tell this was not going to end well.
- Shoulder Strap Stitching: Part way through the school year, it was not uncommon to see the shoulder strap starting to tear – particularly for older children and teens. The weight of the supplies in the backpack and the quality of the stitching likely affect the rate and severity of this tear. Although this problem is not limited to low cost backpacks, it is one of the more common issues with low cost backpacks.
- Backpack Bottoms: With so much of weight sitting at the bottom of the backpack, it’s common to see wear and tear at the bottom. As you’d expect, we saw the same with our tests – both tearing at the seams and thinning of the fabric as the year wore on. With younger children, the backpacks are not carrying as much, so their backpack bottoms tended to last. However, as children age, the backpack bottoms became more and more worn.
- Zippers: Some of our evaluation backpacks arrived with broken zippers – they either got stuck easily or wouldn’t close. These were a no-go from the start. For the backpacks in the field, once we made sure the zippers worked, the children didn’t seem to have issues during the year. However, just trying out different backpacks in our collection, we could definitely tell that some zippers were smoother while others were harder to handle.
There were a few more minor issues here and there (e.g., zipper issues for small/side pockets, minor tearing in internal pocket separators). But the issues identified above are of higher concern and/or more frequent in occurrence.
Our informal backpack test helped guide our selection process for backpacks on Roonga. Although we recognize that nonprofits focus intensively on the cost of backpacks, we decided not to use cost as the sole or primary factor. A minimum bar of usability and reliability factored into our decisions. We believe that providing children with quality supplies improves their confidence and motivation. Therefore, as a company, Roonga prioritizes vendors who agree with this philosophy and are willing to work with us to provide quality products at reasonable prices.
As for backpacks specifically, below are a few recommendations to consider as you are evaluating your options:
- Pick the better quality zipper. Moving up to the next tier of zipper quality is a matter of cents, not dollars. It’s worth it to ensure that backpacks open and close properly.
- Look for reinforced stitching at the top of the shoulder strap. This lengthens the time before the strap starts to tear.
- Check the backpack bottom for either reinforced stitching and, for older kids, additional padding. We were not able to find any reinforcement/padding in the $5 backpacks, but starting in the $8-10 range, we found some options. One strategy is to purchase the lower cost backpacks for younger students and splurge on the higher price point for older students who carry more on their backs.
- Skip the water bottle holder – or at least, don’t make this a priority. The kids in our test placed their water bottle in their main backpack pocket, and that worked fine. Oddly enough, in the low cost range, many backpacks have the water bottle holder, so it’s a moot point in many cases.
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