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Back-to-School Sales Still Slow as Start Date Nears

Retailers have yet to reap the rewards of back-to-school season, according to a National Retail Federation (NRF) survey released Wednesday, which said the average American family with kids in grades K-12 had completed less than half (48 percent) of their shopping as of early August.

“It is evident that many families are still considering price and value when shopping for their back-to-school and college needs,” said Matthew Shay, NRF president and chief executive officer. “Shopping early and often is a trend we have seen from many budget-conscious consumers over the last few years. In the weeks ahead, parents will take advantage of the aggressive deals that retailers will offer as they get ready to welcome the fall season merchandise.”

The annual survey, conducted by Prosper Insights and Analytics, asked nearly 7,000 consumers about both BTS and back-to-college shopping plans in the first week of August and found that 22 percent of families with K-12 aged kids had yet to start—up from last year’s 20 percent. In fact, only 13 percent had finished.

When asked which items they still needed to buy, 77 percent said school supplies, followed by apparel (70 percent) and shoes (57 percent). Respondents said they would be swayed to spend by deals, such as coupons (48 percent), in-store promotions (39 percent) and advertising inserts (33 percent). For those who started shopping early, 50 percent said their purchases were influenced by coupons, sales or promotions.

That urge to bag a bargain is also affecting where families shop, with more than half (53 percent) heading to discount stores. Fifty-one percent said they will shop at department stores, while 39 percent will check out clothing stores. More will shop online this year, too: 31 percent compared to last year’s 27 percent.

Similarly, college students and families with kids in college have completed almost 48 percent of their shopping, with clothing still an unchecked box on 50 percent of shopping lists. Notably, only 42 percent of college consumers said they will complete the rest of their shopping at discount stores—the lowest in survey history—while another 42 percent said they will finish up at department stores and 40 percent will do so online.

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Coupons (42 percent), in-store promotions (32 percent) and advertising inserts (29 percent) will help college consumers complete their shopping, too. For those who have already started, 50 percent said their purchases were influenced by promotions.

“When it comes to big spending events such as back-to-school and back-to-college, families are being very savvy in how they tackle their lists,” said Prosper principal analyst Pam Goodfellow. “Families are slowly completing their shopping this season while taking advantage of expected promotions that will continue through Labor Day, and spreading their budget as necessary.”