NEW YORK — Twice as many back-to-school shoppers are blaming "fears about the economy or losing their job" for spending less this year compared with 2001, during a season in which SpongeBob, Britney Spears and NASCAR are seen dominating the licensed character and sports-logo action.

That’s the word from America’s Research Group, a Charleston, S.C.-based consumer behavior consultant, which has just released results from its b-t-s consumer survey. The poll, conducted Aug. 1-3, showed 38.9 percent of adults saying they’d rolled back seasonal spending plans due to worries over job security or the economy, compared with 17.4 percent a year ago.

Curiously, the sharpest slide in spending plans came at the upper levels. For example, just 5.3 percent of those polled said they’d allocate $401 to $600 to b-t-s items this year, down from 20 percent a year earlier. And 6.7 percent said they’d spend more than $600, compared with 9.5 percent.

More people plan to spend $200 or less versus last year — 32.5 percent against 25.7 percent — but fewer say they’ll spend less than $50, with 0.3 percent planning to do so this season, compared with 1 percent last year.

As for where they expect to do most of their shopping, Wal-Mart again topped the list, pulling a 51.3 percent share against 46 percent a year ago. In fact, the rankings of the seven most popular stores for planned b-t-s shopping remained the same, but some gained share while others lost it. Old Navy ranked second, at 30.5 percent versus 26.4 percent last year. It was followed by Sears (28.8 percent against 29 percent); J.C. Penney (28 percent compared with 22.9 percent); Gap (14.5 percent versus 15.9 percent); Target (13.6 percent against 15.4 percent) and Kmart (13.1 percent compared with 16.5 percent.)

"It’s incredible that over half the U.S. is going to be at Wal-Mart, shopping for back-to-school," said ARG chairman Britt Beemer of the response of the representative sample of 800 parents of school-aged children.

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