Surveys this summer show back-to-school shoppers still cautious in the face of a sluggish economy, but ready to shell out more cash than in each of the past two years.
Even though 85 percent of those surveyed by BIGinsight for the National Retail Federation say the economy will influence their back-to-school spending this year, a survey done by the same research firm showed the average family with children in grades K-12 will spend $688.62 on their children's back-to-school needs, up 14 percent from last year's $603.63 projection and 13 percent over the $606.40 shoppers said they would spend in 2010.
Overall, consumers are expected to spend $84 billion on back-to-school shopping, up a whopping $15 billion from 2011's retail federation estimate. According to the latest back-to-school shopping survey issued by the federation on Aug. 15, the average family with children in grades K-12 had completed 40 percent of their shopping, while college shoppers and their families had completed slightly more than 45 percent.
That gives retailers less than one more week to compete for the remainder of shoppers' spending.
"It's evident that there are plenty of last minute shoppers this year and for retailers (the next few days) are of utmost importance when it comes to attracting families who still have apparel, electronics and school supplies to stock up on," National Retail Federation President and Chief Executive Officer Matthew Shay said in a release. "Given how much of an impact the economy is having on consumers' buying decisions, retailers will remain competitive up through the final sale after Labor Day, rolling out web, in-store and even mobile promotions to entice children and their parents."
This month alone, offers and enticements have included free kids haircuts at JC Penney, half off – or better -- jeans at Abercrombie & Fitch, 40 percent off everything at Justice, $10 jeans for kids at Old Navy, free shipping on everything purchased from American Eagle Outfitter's website and notebooks — the kind you write in, not type on — for as little as a penny at Staples or 17 cents at Walmart.
Joseph Ohrin, marketing director at the Wyoming Valley Mall, says he's noticed a few trends this year including more signage hyping promotions and sales starting much earlier than in previous years.
"I think the economy is a lot better than it was a few years ago," Ohrin said, and that means more money to spend and more competition among stores to get those dollars.
Typically, back-to-school sales started popping up in early August, Ohrin said. Now, he noted, some started in early to mid-July, just weeks after some students were dismissed for the school year.
"It seems to be creeping earlier year after year," Ohrin said.
Kurt Slusser, manager of the JC Penney store at the Wyoming Valley Mall, said on one recent night the mall parking lot was filled as if it were "a Saturday in December, not a Friday in August."
He said this past week was likely the busiest of the back-to-school shopping season, which is second only to the Christmas shopping season.
While JC Penney sales were brisk, Slusser said, the marketing campaign that really got people in the store was the free kids haircut. He said 753 free cuts given at the store through Wednesday.
Kelly Hardy, of Plains Township, brought her 10-year-old daughter Kelsey and 7-year-old son Oscar in Wednesday for their back-to-school cuts. The promotion saved her $28.
"It's fantastic," Hardy said. While JC Penney was able to get the Hardy family in with the haircut promotion, they did not spend money on back-to-school clothing there. Instead she shopped at Old Navy, where $5 polos and $10 pants enabled to her to dress her children for $150.
Another shopper who said she would spend less than the $688.62 average on her children's back-to-school needs was Kristi Hansen, of Mountain Top. Walking through the mall with her son Jordan, 13, in tow, she decided to wait until the last minute to do her shopping and chose the mall as her destination.
With bags in hand from Sears, Aeropostale, Hollister, JC Penney and Zoomiez, Hansen said she spent about $1,000 last year but she quit her job at the Columbia County Prison to spend more time with her family. With less income coming in, she scaled back her budget by 50 percent this year.
She said by shopping with a plan and not allowing children to dictate what to buy, it's possible to spend less than that $688 figure.
"It's doable," Hansen noted.
According to a survey conducted among 8,509 consumers:
• Total back-to-school and college shoppers will spend $83.8 billion
• The average family will spend $688.62, 14 percent more than last year
• Discount stores, department stores and clothing stores are the most popular places for back-to-school shopping
• More than one-third will do their shopping online
• A strong majority of both smartphone and tablet owners will use their devices to shop.
The survey had a margin of error of 1 percent.