Back-to-school shoppers likely to scout out bargains

With daughters, Danielle, 11, and Gabriel, 9, in tow, Jennifer Wagner of Toledo, Ohio, made the rounds last week in her annual summer hunt for school supplies.

A "cost-conscious" shopper, Wagner got what she needed, but she also was determined to get the best deal for her money.

Her quest to pick up good deals on school supplies ended up taking her to OfficeMax, Target, and even home improvement retailer Menard's.

"We're watching the sales," said Wagner, who added she probably will spend a little more this year on supplies because her daughters are changing schools.

"We've been all over the place."

With total back-to-school and back-to-college spending expected to reach $72.5 billion this year, according to the National Retail Federation, school supplies are becoming like food: A must-have staple.

Some parents say, however, say they plan to encourage their children to reuse what items they can, such as backpacks, to cut down on costs. While retailers will be doing their best this year to get people such as Wagner to part with their shopping dollars, overall it could be a disappointing summer for many merchants.

The retail federation is predicting the average family will spend $634.78 on school supplies, an 8 percent drop from last year's projected average of $688.62. 

"The good news is that consumers are spending, but they are doing so with cost and practicality in mind. Having splurged on their growing children's needs last year, parents will ask their kids to reuse what they can for the upcoming school season," said Matthew Shay, retail federation president and chief executive officer.

A shopper from Sylvania, Ohio, named Kim, who declined to give her last name, said she planned to use that strategy with her two middle-school boys.

"My younger one gets the hand-me-downs from the older one -- always, always," she said.

"They might use the same backpack," she added. "I'll ask them and give them the option, but this is their second year of reusing them, so if they wanted a new one, I'd be OK with that. I'd let them pick out a new one, but I'll ask them if they want to keep what they have," she said.

Michael Niemira, chief economist for the International Council of Shopping Centers, also is pessimistic about this year's spending.

He is predicting that the average household will spend $285 on back-to-school shopping this year, a 5 percent decrease from 2012 when spending per household averaged $300. (His group includes fewer items in its survey than the retail foundation.)

Consumers also plan to do considerably more of that shopping at discount stores (90 percent vs. 83 percent in 2012) than anywhere else, followed by office supply and traditional department stores, Niemira said.

Still, some retailers remain hopeful. Discounter Meijer Inc. expects to draw a lot of back-to-school shoppers. The Michigan-based chain surveyed its customers this year and found most planned to start shopping earlier than before and expected to continue shopping right up to the start of school in order to get the best bargains possible.

In addition, 90 percent of shoppers said they planned to spend the same or more than they did last year, with an increased emphasis on electronics such as ereaders and tablets, apparel and art supplies.

Meijer competitor the Kroger Co. is hoping consumers will add it to their list of potential places to buy back-to-school supplies.

The supermarket chain's new Marketplace store in Lambertville, Mich. now carries clothing, along with large supplies of notebooks, pencils, and folders. It hopes to lure shoppers through back-to-school advertisements that will run this week.

When the August sales figures come in, Britt Beemer, president of retail consulting firm America's Research Group, predicts they will show a downturn of between 0.5 and 2 percent in back-to-school shopping compared to last year.

Overall, "it's not going to be pretty" for most retailers, he said.

"The number of people who said they would delay back-to-school shopping until Labor Day was at an all-time high this year," Beemer said. "These are people who are waiting until Labor Day in order to get as many deals as they can and they are just buying the basics right now."

That seems about right to Randy Rowles, manager of the Elder-Beerman department store in West Toledo.

"We're selling a lot of our clearance now. They're buying (sale items) because it's an extra 50 percent off and they know they will be able to get bargains now and then maybe spend a little more later for what they really want," he said.

One reason so many experts are predicting more delayed purchasing and bargain hunting this year could be the rising cost of school supplies.

According to the eighth annual Backpack index, compiled by Huntington Bank in Columbus,

Ohio, the costs for K-12 school supplies this year rose an average of 7.3 percent compared to just a 1.4 percent rise in the broader consumer price index.

Huntington Bank said parents can expect to pay $576 for supplies for elementary school students, a 5.3 percent increase compared to 2012; $762 for middle school students, a 5.3 percent increase, and $1,223 for high school students, a 9.5 percent increase.

(Contact Jon Chavez at jchavez@theblade.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)

Editors: Also listed on News and Business budget

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