For one thing, no one seems to be in much of a hurry -- an indication that they plan to spend less, or are waiting for retailers to cut prices. A new report from the National Retail Federation says that while the average American family had completed only 41.6% of the shopping, 30.5% of families with school-age children have not even started. Families with college kids are even slower to spend -- 41.9% of those families still have not begun.
And overwhelmingly, families are looking for deals. Among those who have been shopping, coupons have been the major motivator this year, influencing 47.8% of purchases. And 62.2% of those with shopping still left to do say they will do it a discount store, while well under one-half -- 44.8% -- will choose a department store, and only 21.8% will choose a specialty apparel store. Surprisingly, 10.3% in the NRF report say they plan to finish their back-to-school shopping at thrift or resale shops.
Teens -- a major force in clothing sales -- are also bargain-hunting. "There are still must-have products, and I don't think that's going away," says Doug Akin, managing partner at Mr Youth, an agency specializing in social marketing. "But even younger shoppers are responding more to great value this year, so things like coupons are more relevant." Logo-centric behavior also seems to be losing a little luster, he says. "Take a trend like plaid -- as long as there is great style and the clothes are on trend, teens are taking a closer look at badge-worthiness. They're on a stricter budget and saving their dollars, so they are saying, 'Is it really worth paying double just to have that logo?'"
He expects that to have less of an impact on sneakers. "It's a little harder to interfere with market share for a brand like Nike," he says. "But for things like t-shirts and hoodies, less expensive brands are making inroads."
The NRF survey also polled people on Web sites they liked the best this year, with Walmart, Target, JCPenney, Staples, Kohl's, Old Navy and Sears ranking among the top 10. And 18.5% of consumers say the sites motivated them to shop at that retailer. (About a third say the Web sites had no impact because they were already planning to shop there.)
And in this age of bargain-hunting, traditional media took a hit, with consumers naming coupons (43.4%) and advertising inserts (42.1%) as the main influencers on where they shop. TV ads, magazines, and direct mail had far less impact.
Earlier this year, the NRF predicted that total back-to-school and back-to-college spending will reach $47.50 billion this year, with families of students in grades K-12 spending $548.72 on school merchandise -- a decline of 7.7% -- and families of college students spending $618.12 -- up slightly from last year's $599.38.