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Back-to-School Shopping Heats Up This Summer


Along with record-breaking temperatures across much of North America, back-to-school shopping in the United States is growing hotter as well. According to the National Retail Federation, total spending for back-to-college is expected to reach (USD) $53.5 billion. Combined K-12 and college spending is expected to reach a record (USD) $83.8 billion. This represents the second largest annual consumer spending event for retailers, next to the winter holidays. 

The NRF 2012 Back to School and College Survey conducted by consumer research firm BIGinsight.com, polled 8,509 consumers during the week of July 2 to July 9. The survey reveals10 important trends impacting consumer shopping behavior. 

1.    Economic Concerns

According to the survey, about 85% of back-to-school and college shoppers say the economy is impacting their spending plans and decisions. This includes how, what, when, where and why they shop for school and college items. Also, instead of buying new, more parents will be asking their children to make do with last year's items (31.2% vs. 29.7% last year).  

The good news, according to The Conference Board (www.conference-board.org), is that consumer confidence improved in July. The Consumer Confidence Index now stands at 65.9 (1985=100*), up from 62.7 in June. The Expectations Index improved to 79.1 from 73.4. This suggests that consumer confidence is increasing slightly, which tends to have a positive impact on retail sales.  

2.    Baby “Boom”

High growth in spending this year could be due to record levels of elementary and middle school enrollment. Three out of ten Americans report having at least one child between the ages of 6 and 17.  

3.    Focus on Refill

Replenishment is still consumers’ major focus for back-to-school shopping. Three factors influence refill rates of products and supplies:

1.    Breakage and/or depletion

2.    Children rapidly mature and outgrow items

3.    Technology is more affordable than ever.

As a result, families of K-12 students are expected to spend an average of $688 on supplies this year. College students and their families will spend an average of $907.22 "on everything from dorm furniture and collegiate gear to school supplies and personal care items." This is up from $808.71 a year ago.

4.    Shopping More Online

Since 2003, online shopping for back-to-school products has nearly quadrupled. The percentage of school shoppers buying at least one item online has grown from 10.9% in 2003, to 21.4% in 2007. This year online shopping is projected to reach 39.6%. 

Moreover, there will be more people doing comparative shopping online this year (34.6% versus 30.7% in 2011). They will also purchase more online (20.5% vs. 18.8% last year.). Smart shoppers are heading online in droves to comparison shop and find the best value. 

5.    Spending More Online

Not only are more consumers shopping online, but they are spending more when they do. Shoppers heading online will spend $874 on average, a 27% increase above the overall shopper average. 

6.    Shopping Earlier

College students and their families, as well as parents with children in grades K-12, will begin shopping earlier this year. Nearly one-third (31.9%) are planning to start school shopping three weeks to one month before school starts This is up from 28.9% last year. Nearly three in 10 (29.0%) said they will begin shopping at least two months before school starts. This is up from 24.4% who said so last year, while 9.2% said they will start shopping after school starts. 

7.    Campus Housing Preferred

The back-to-college survey shows fewer college-aged children will live at home this year (42.9% versus 52.9% last year). More parents said their child will live in a dorm room or college housing (25.9% versus 18.1% last year). This trend will most likely result in increased demand for dorm supplies and furnishings. 

For dorm furnishings, shoppers are expected to spend $100.27. Other items on the list include food ($100.18), personal care ($81.76), school supplies ($75.73) and collegiate branded gear ($52.87). 

College freshmen and their parents are expected to spend the most this year, spending an average of $929.35. Graduate students, preparing for life on their own or a career, will spend $879.89, followed by sophomores ($812.97), juniors ($767.41) and seniors ($680.70). 

8.    Home Stores Popular

Home furnishing stores should see a jump in traffic this year, as 16.4% of back-to-college shoppers will head to a home furnishing or home décor store. This is up from 11.2% last year. College students and their families will also head to discount stores (51.9%), department stores (45.4%), drug stores (22.3%), office supply stores (40.3%), clothing stores (34.8%), electronics stores (21.1%) and thrift stores (15.0%).  

9.    Catalog Comeback

The survey found 15.1% of shoppers said they plan to use catalogs to buy their college items, up from 11.4% last year and just 8.3% the year prior. This statistic has tripled from 5% since 2003. Nearly one-quarter (24.9%) of the average 25 to 34 year old will use catalogs to purchase school items.  

10.   Practical Pre-paid Plastic

Budget-conscious parents are cutting back on sending their kids off to college with “emergency” credit cards. The survey found that 37.9% of college age shoppers are expected to spend an average of $71.23 from gift cards or pre-paid cards for coffee, pizza, music and more. This is the most since 2009, when this category first appeared in the survey.  

In conclusion, consumers are willing to spend more for back-to-school products, especially on dorm supplies and furnishings. They tend to look for quality products at reasonable prices and shop comparably. Shopping channels may vary; online shopping is gaining favor while catalog shopping is also making a comeback. In terms of brick and mortar stores, home furnishing stores should see a jump in traffic, while discounters are especially favored.

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