NRF predicts ‘strong’ back-to-school shopping season


It’s that time of year again. When the front aisles at local big-box department stores switch from carrying beach towels and sunscreen to rows of composition books, pens and, of course, glue sticks.

“We are expecting a pretty strong back-to-school shopping season this year,” said Katherine Cullen, the director of industry and consumer insights at the National Retail Federation. “We actually look at spending for both back-to-school, which is for kindergarten through 12th-grade families, as well as for back-to-college.”

In total, those two groups are expected to spend nearly $83 billion this year — the third highest it’s been in the National Retail Foundation’s survey’s history.

About $55.3 billion is people shopping for college-bound students while roughly $27.5 billion is for the back-to-school shoppers.

Over the past few years, the foundation has noticed a shift in K-12 parents buying their children technology items.

“It makes sense when you think about it, because several years ago when your kids were going to high school or even middle school you needed to buy a family laptop or desktop for them to do their homework but really those technology items have become part of families’ everyday lives,” Cullen said.

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On the other hand, college shoppers will spend about a quarter of their budget on electronics.

The foundation doesn’t break down the collected data by state, but Cullen said there is little regional variation in the way people spend their money on back-to-school and college items.

Two trends the foundation noticed this year include the shopping season starting earlier and the effect Generation Z has on their family’s spending.

“In the past when we looked at this data, people would save a lot of their shopping for the last couple of weeks or the week before school started,” Cullen said. “What we’ve seen in recent years is that people are starting earlier and earlier.”

One of the reasons the foundation believes shoppers are beginning sooner is because of the promotions and deals they see.

“People are starting to stretch their shopping out through the whole summer when they see a great price that is just too good to pass up,” Cullen said. “The other thing that we think is very interesting has to do with Generation Z, which is the generation after Millennials and is what most K-12 students fall into right now.”

The young generation has a different approach to shopping and the ability to have a “big influence” on how their family spends.

“We hear it from parents, who say during back-to-school their K-12 students will influence about half the purchases they make, which is a lot,” Cullen said. “We believe it’s partly because parents want to involve children in the purchases since it’s what their child is going to wear and use, and then, we also hear it is something parents are using to teach decision-making and help their kids start to think about finances.”

Julie Herold, the co-owner of Born Again Used Books, said this time of year is also popular for home-schooling curriculum purchases.

“June is crazy with home-schooling people, and then, right now through August,” she said. “My main customers are parents of home-schoolers but I get teachers wanting more material, and tutors as well.”

Herold said her store is the only place that sells used home-school teaching materials in the Springs.

“It’s very hard to keep it going because you have to know what people are looking for and are actually using,” she said. “Since I am a teacher, I have an idea of what’s useful and I just love home schooling and think it’s very important that parents have good material.”

This year, the foundation’s annual back-to-school survey also included two areas with increased spending.

“There has been more than a 30 percent increase since 2012 in terms of what families spend on shoes,” Cullen said. “There is a trend towards fashion sneakers, so that could be driving some of that.”

The amount spent on school supplies, not including electronics, also is expected to increase this year.

“Some of it could be driven by what schools are requiring on their lists,” Cullen said. “We also have heard from some parents that schools are requiring them to contribute to classroom supplies at a bigger rate, so that could be playing into that too.”

Some school districts are starting to require that parents purchase a school supply kit, which typically ships directly to schools.

“They are paying a fixed price for it from whatever vendor the school picks rather than being able to shop around for the best deals,” Cullen said. “We don’t know how widespread that trend is but things like that can increase the average spend per family, which is about an average of $690 for back-to-school and $900 for college in 2018.”

Although, for parents of Colorado Springs School District 11 kindergarten through eighth graders, their spending is expected to be less this year, according to Devra Ashby, the public information officer for the district.

“It’s a little bit different this year because our [school] board is supplying basic school supply kits for kindergarten through eighth graders, which is something we have never done before,” she said. “You are going to find schools this year that have no school supply lists for parents to shop for, and then you are going to find some teachers who still request additional things for their classroom.”

The school board purchased about 18,000 kits for roughly $150,000 from a vendor with funds given to the district by legislators to make up some of the negative factor caused by funding cuts following the recession.

“So our elementary and middle school parents will have a little list of things to buy, but it’s definitely going to be a lot less than in years past,” Ashby said. “And at the high school level, there is no school supply list because what they do is go to their classes and find out if there is anything else needed.”

All in all, Cullen said the foundation is encouraged by the predicted spending for 2018.

“It’s also great that people still are getting out and shopping,” she said. “We are excited to see how the season wraps up.”