EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 13, 2012

Column: Why retailers love it when summer starts to wane

Dale McFeatters
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Just under 80 million students, kindergarten through grad school, are heading back to the classroom. Some of them surely worry whether their education will get them a job and whether they’ll be able to pay for that education.

But these are gloomy thoughts for another time. Back-to-school is a happy time -- especially for retailers, who expect to take in $83 billion equipping and outfitting the young scholars.

The National Retail Federation says that back-to-school is the year’s second biggest spending event after the Christmas holidays and that consumers spend more than on Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Easter and Father’s Day combined.

Americans went through some lean times and had to cut back on school spending, but retailers’ figures show they are still willing to open their wallets for their school-age children.

The average person with K-12 children will spend $688 to get a youngster ready for school, the federation predicts. That is up markedly over last year’s $603. The federation’s economists are reluctant to call this a sign that the economy is coming back, although signs point in that direction. They say it is due more to parents replenishing and replacing clothes and supplies from those lean years.

There was a similar healthy increase in outlays for college students, an average of $907 versus $808 last year.

A federation official said, “If it’s one thing the economy has changed, it’s how people shop.”

For starters, they’re beginning to shop earlier to spread out costs. They are more attentive to sales and promotions, and they shop at discount stores and favor stores’ private labels.

Increasingly, they shop online. About 40 percent of parents and students will shop the Internet, nearly double the 21 percent who did so in 2007 and almost quadruple the 10.9 percent who did so in 2003.

The anomaly in online shopping is that it doesn’t appear to have been done for budgetary reasons. The online shopper will spend $874 -- 27 percent more than the average for K-12.

Another sign of improvement, even if the retailers are reluctant to say so, is that fewer college-age students will live at home: 42.9 percent this year versus 52.9 percent last year. One-quarter will live in campus housing.

Let us hope that all those school supplies, clothes and electronics pay off in a job and a career rather than a foldout couch in Mom’s basement.

Dale McFeatters writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.