Back-to-School Budgets to Shrink This Year, National Retail Federation Survey Says

Data Conflicts With Shopping Centers Survey That Says Spending Will Increase

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After boosting back-to-school spending in 2014, families will be more selective this year and restock only items they really need, according to a survey released today by the National Retail Federation. That information conflicts with survey data released yesterday by the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Families with children in kindergarten through 12th grade plan to spend an average of $630.36 on electronics, apparel and school supplies this year, down from a projected $669.28 in 2014, according to the survey, which was conducted for the NRF by Prosper Insights & Analytics.

College shoppers and their families will also be tightening the purse strings. They plan to spend an average of $899.18 on back-to-college items such as dorm furnishing, electronics, apparel, food and school supplies, down from a projected $916.48 last year, the NRF survey found.

Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the NRF, said historical data shows it is common for families to cut back on spending after splurging the previous year. Consumers may also be factoring in guaranteed promotions that may help them save on purchases this year, she added.

A year ago, retailers such as Walmart, Macy's, Kohl's and J.C. Penney all cited strong back-to-school spending during earnings calls. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, August and September sales were up a year ago, when compared to 2013.

This year's shrinking budgets are also in line with buying tends, according to past NRF surveys, which show that spending rises and falls year after year.

"As seen over the last 13 years, spending on 'back to school' has consistently fluctuated based on children's needs each year, and it's unlikely most families would need to restock and replenish apparel, electronics and supplies every year," said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of NRF, in a statement. "Parents this summer will inventory their children's school supplies and decide what is needed and what can be reused, which just makes good budgeting sense for families with growing children."

The results of the NRF survey are at odds with those of another survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers, which was released yesterday. That survey showed that 67% of consumers plan to spend more on back-to-school purchases this year, up from 50% last year. The jump was due, in part, to changes in school supply requirements and fashion trends.

The two organizations declined to comment on the discrepancy, because the methodologies behind the surveys and the consumers polled differ.

NRF's 2015 Back-to-School and Back-to-College spending surveys were conducted in partnership with Prosper Insights & Analytics. The poll of 6,500 consumers was conducted June 30 to July 8, 2015. and has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.2 percentage points.

ICSC surveyed 1,000 consumers on their spending plans between June 29 and July 1. "We asked them point blank will you spend more, less or the same," said ICSC spokesman Jesse Tron. "We used to ask how much more ... but that becomes tricky, in that consumers rarely are able to accurately recall the exact amount they spent the previous year."

"All these surveys of course are intent," said Mr. Tron, "but they do give us a good peek behind the curtain at consumer mindset."

Combined spending on back-to-school and college has soared over the past decade, and is expected to reach $68 billion this year, up 42% from 2005, according to the NRF.

Historical combined spending on BTS and BTC during the past 10 years.
Historical combined spending on BTS and BTC during the past 10 years. Credit: NRF

The NRF survey also gauged whether shoppers planned to use retailers' omnichannel offerings. Nearly half of those planning to shop online -- 48% of school shoppers and 47% of college shoppers -- say they will take advantage of retailers' buy online, pick up in store or ship-to-store options. Nine in 10, or 92% of school shoppers and 90% of college shoppers, will take advantage of retailers' free shipping offers, the survey showed.

"Savvy and budget-conscious parents today have plenty of experience when it comes to looking around for great deals and value-add promotions, and it seems mom and dad will use that to their advantage this summer to take advantage of retailers' omnichannel services," said Pam Goodfellow, principal analyst at Prosper, in a statement.

More consumers will also put off shopping for back-to-school until the last minute. According to the NRF survey, fewer consumers than last year expect to begin their shopping two months before school starts, and slightly more plan to wait until one to two weeks before school. Those planning to start early are doing so to spread out their budgets, take advantage of price promotions, avoid missing out on items, and avoid the stress of last-minute shopping.

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