By David Moin
with contributions from Lisa Lockwood
 on July 13, 2017

In a highly optimistic forecast, the National Retail Federation projects that back-to-school and college spending will reach $83.6 billion, a more than 10 percent increase from last year’s $75.8 billion.

The NRF says rising consumer confidence and higher school enrollment will trigger the gains. Categories being measured include clothing, shoes, electronics and school supplies.

The NRF bases its findings on a survey conducted by Prosper Insights and Analytics of 7,226 consumers from June 30 to July 5. They were asked about back-to-school and back-to-college spending plans. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.2 percentage points.

“Families are now in a state of mind where they feel a lot more confident about the economy,” said NRF president and chief executive officer Matthew Shay on Thursday. “With stronger employment levels and a continued increase in wages, consumers are spending more and we are optimistic that they will continue to do so throughout the rest of the year. As students head back to the classroom, retailers are prepared to meet their needs whether it’s for pencils and paper, shirts and pants or laptops and tablets.” Stock market gains are also fueling consumer confidence.

In a conference call, Shay said the retail industry is in “a very good place.” However, he also said, “It is true the industry is in [the] midst of major transformation, effecting some categories and retail brands to greater or lesser degrees. Certainly, there is transformation occurring across the industry.”

While acknowledging the many announcements by retail companies on store closings this year, Shay also said that “Because of the disruption, there are greater opportunities for creation of new businesses and productivity gains.” He added there are thousands of store openings happening, though possibly not on a “one-to-one ratio” with store closings.

With more consumers in the workforce with higher wages, “It makes sense they’re willing to open their wallets,” Shay said.

Next week, the NRF holds its annual Retail Advocate Summit in Washington, where Vice President Mike Pence will address the meeting.

Asked how department and fashion specialty stores might fare this bts season, Ellen Davis, NRF’s senior vice president, research and strategic initiatives, said traffic in most categories is going to be down” and that “people will be shopping in fewer locations overall.” Much of the bricks-and-mortar traffic is going to the Internet, but multichannel retailers share in the Internet gains, she noted.

“We are looking at a major turning point into July and going forward,” said Jack Kleinhenz, NRF’s chief economist, noting that the country is in its eighth consecutive year of economic expansion. He cited “a bit of [a] lull in consumer spending earlier in the year, which was puzzling, but the second quarter is a stepping stone for the outlook and is looking stronger than the first quarter.”

According to the NRF/Prosper findings, families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average $687.72 each, for a total of $29.5 billion, an 8 percent increase from last year’s $27.3 billion. The spending there peaked at $30.3 billion in 2012.

Deloitte on Wednesday also projected a rise in back-to-school spending, but the projection was less dramatic than NRF’s. Deloitte forecasted that parents with children in kindergarten through grade 12 will spend an average of $501 per student, for a total of $27 billion, compared to last year’s $488.

Deloitte’s back-to-school survey was conducted online using an independent research panel between May 31 and June 6. The survey polled 1,200 parents of school-aged children. All respondents had at least one child attending school in grades K-12 this fall.

According to Deloitte, the b-t-s shopping season accounts for about 50 percent of consumers’ annual school-related spend and involves about one-quarter of U.S. households. Deloitte found that market share is moving away from department stores and specialty channels, toward mass merchants and off-price venues. According to the study, 81 percent of parents said they plan to shop at mass merchants — a 24 percent jump from last year. Forty percent said they’ll shop at dollar stores and 36 percent said they’ll shop at online-only retailers. Twenty-eight percent of parents said they plan to shop at department stores, a significant decline from 54 percent last year.

Clothing and accessories garnered the largest piece of the b-t-s spend. Of the $501 average clothing budget this year, 55 percent is earmarked to clothing and accessories; 20 percent to school supplies; 14 percent to computers and hardware, and 9 percent to electronic gadgets.

“With today’s technology-based education system, there is less need for traditional school supplies, likely contributing to the shift toward more spending on clothing and accessories before children head back to school,” said Rod Sides, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP and U.S. retail, wholesale and distribution practice leader. “Part of this shift may also come from the popularity of preconfigured school supply kits, which 30 percent of families plan to use. Shoppers can now get their supplies all at once, leaving more time and budget for spending in other categories such as clothing and accessories.”

The NRF said that b-t-s shoppers plan to spend $10.2 billion on clothing (purchased by 95 percent of respondents), $8.8 billion on electronics such as computers or calculators (60 percent), $5.6 billion on shoes (93 percent) and $4.9 billion on school supplies such as notebooks, folders, pencils, backpacks and lunch boxes (97 percent).

Also, parents will spend an average $238.89 on clothing, $204.33 on electronics, $130.38 on shoes and $114.12 on school supplies, the NRF said. While consumers plan to spend more across all categories, shoes and school supplies should see the highest increase.

“Schools are changing their classroom experience to include more technology including laptops and tablets,” Prosper principal analyst Pam Goodfellow said in a statement. “That is why many parents, specifically Millennials, are spending more during back-to-school season and taking advantage of retailers’ best deals to stretch their budgets.”

The survey also indicates that children are having greater influence on purchases paid for by their parents, and that there is some earlier shopping. Twenty-seven percent of those surveyed began their kindergarten through 12th grade bts shopping two months before the beginning of school, up from 22 percent last year. However, 21 percent will wait until the last week or two before school starts, about the same as last year’s 22 percent.

Back-to-college buyers are also shopping earlier, with 32 percent starting two months before school versus 26 percent last year. And only 21 percent will leave shopping until the last week or two before school starts, down from 25 percent last year.

Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed said they will shop at department stores; 54 percent at discount stores; 46 percent each at clothing stores and online, and 36 percent at office supply stores. For those shopping online, 91 percent plan to take advantage of free shipping and 54 percent will buy online and pick up in-store.

With college enrollment growing, students and their families plan to spend an average of $969.88, up from last year’s $888.71. Total spending is seen at $54.1 billion, up from $48.5 billion last year and surpassing 2012’s record $53.5 billion.

College consumers plan to spend $12.8 billion on electronics (purchased by 51 percent), $8 billion on clothing (78 percent), $7.5 billion on snacks and other food items (75 percent), $5.9 billion on dorm/apartment furnishings (51 percent), $4.5 billion on shoes (72 percent), $4.5 billion on personal-care items (78 percent), $3.9 billion on school supplies (88 percent), $3.9 billion on gift cards (40 percent) and $3.2 billion on branded collegiate gear (56 percent).

Forty-four percent will go online; 40 percent will shop discount stores; 39 percent, department stores; 34 percent, college bookstores, and 29 percent to office supply stores.

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