Fewer Shoppers Looking For A Sale During $84 Billion Back-To-School Season

National Retail Federation Survey Finds Caution, But Less So Than Prior Years

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The second-biggest shopping season of the year is about to kick off in earnest, with retailers gearing up to take advantage of the $84 billion back-to-school and back-to-college period. The winter holidays, by contrast, account for $580 billion in spending, according to the National Retail Federation.

Back-to-school sales total $84 billion.
Back-to-school sales total $84 billion.
Households with children ages 6 to 17
2013 2009
Spending less overall 37% 50%
Shopping for sales more often 48% 56%
Making do with last year's items 26% 35%
Buying more store brand/generics 37% 42%
Using coupons more 37% 40%
Back-to-school plans will not change 23% 15%

Consumers are still feeling cautious, with 77% of families with school-aged children saying the state of the U.S. economy will affect their back-to-school spending plans, according to a new survey conducted by BigInsight. But there are also some encouraging signs for retailers.

For one, fewer consumers say they are buying generics and shopping for sales. Compared to the depths of the recession with 50% of families said they were spending less overall, only 37% say they will do so this season. Tepid spring sales due to unseasonably cool weather in much of the country, moreover, may have left extra money in consumers' pockets for back-to-school shopping.

"Given some people were just not in the mood to shop for spring attire, that could easily translate to a few extra bucks for back-to-school," said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation.

Still, roughly one-quarter of families with school-aged children say they will be making do with items from last school year. That's slightly higher than the poll in 2012, which many industry analysts considered to be a replenishment year, following several years of consumers limiting purchases.

More consumers are also turning to the internet for their back-to-school shopping. More families than ever before -- 32% -- said they will be comparison shopping online, while 18% said they would be shopping more online.

"Much of what we're seeing is that 'new normal.' Families are willing to spend a little more on their growing child's needs, but they are still going to clip coupons and shop online for deals. It's important for the average American to find ways to keep to a budget," said Ms. Grannis. "At the same time, we're seeing positive indicators in the economy, everything from housing to consumer confidence."