As families tighten budgets, department stores and chains are becoming even more creative in turning back-to-school sales into a major advertising event to attract more shoppers.
"The good news is that consumers are spending, but they are doing so with cost and practically in mind,'' said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation. "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."
Families with school-age children will spend an average of $635 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics, down from the historic high of nearly $689 last year, according to a recent survey released by the Washington D.C. retail group.
Total spending this year is expected to reach $26.7 billion. And when back-to-college spending is included, total spending will top $72.5 million.
After several years of uncertainty, the economy is still affecting how Americans shop. This year 84.8 percent of consumers with school-aged children say the economy will impact their spending plans in some way, such as shopping more sales, turning to less expensive private labels and cutting back on their children's extracurricular activities, according to a July survey released by the National Retail Federation.
But one category where parents expect to spend more is helping college-bound children decorate their dorm rooms. Unlike past generations, Millennials aren't collecting dorm essentials from home.
"Retailers want to tap into Millennial Generation's savvy style," said Kathy Grannis with the National Retail Federation. "When comes to dorms and apartments it's no longer your parents' room. Millennials want that fashion-forward type of apartment and dorm."
This year, college students and their families will spend an average $907.22 on everything from dorm furniture and collegiate gear to school supplies and personal care items, up from $808.71 last year, according to the Washington-D.C. based-federation survey.
Retailers hope to cash in on that trend.
For instance, Bed, Bath & Beyond is offering tips, such as contacting future roommates to decide ahead of time what items to share, along with suggestions on how to build a better bed. The chain also is offering students a way to get their stuff to college. Families may shop online for dorm essentials at a store near home, and then pickup their purchases at an outlet near the campus.
In August and September, Target will bus students to stores across the country for an evening of entertainment and shopping. Students also may design their own virtual rooms online.
Still, after years of lackluster economic growth, parents have become accustomed to tight back-to-school budgets, said Grannis.
To combat costs, parents are expecting their children to help with school expenses. One quarter of families surveyed said they'll ask their kids to look through their closets to find items that can be reused, up from 23.5 percent last year. And more than one-third of parents say they're looking for coupons and purchasing generic items to cut down on school costs.
In Salt Lake City's 9th and 9th district, The Children's Hour has sales on its lighter, summer clothing.
"Parents usually aren't in the mood to be buying sweaters and warm clothing this time of year," said owner Diane Etherington.
Utah-based clothing chain Down East competes with big box stores by offering seconds and its own private line that can be layered, mixed and matched. For back-to-school, store are moving to rich jewel tones deep purple and teal with one-color outfits or ensembles that pair two solid colors at its 50 locations in eight western states.
Lines allow budget-conscious shoppers to buy "much, much more," said Jonathan Freeman, DownEast vice president of Apparel.
Syracuse mother Carolyn Staley said she stretches her family budget by staying away from new wardrobes "that we must buy all at once. When my kids need clothing or shoes I buy them. But they don't get new shoes just because school is starting."
Start at home • Child on scavenger hunt who finds most items on teacher's list gets prize.
Free classics • Great works of literature may be downloaded and printed at gutenberg.org.
Price-match • Look for stores such Staples and Office Max that offer price-match policies.
Swap • Hold a clothing exchange with other parents; sell old sports equipment for the next size.
Reuse • If last year's spiral notebooks aren't used up, tear out the old pages and decorate new cover.
Compare • If you have a smartphone, use ShopSavvy app to scan any product's bar code for best deal.
Go green • Buy reusable sandwich bags from sites such as reuseit.com rather than using throwaways.
Calculate • If kids are responsible, skip cheaper electronics for models they can use for several years.
Warranty • L.L.Bean, Lands' End and REI are among companies that fix or replace worn merchandise.
Save on college dorm needs
Home inventory • Check around home to see what items you already have to use in your dorm.
Sales • Expect to see sales not only on school supplies, but also on many items to stock your room.
Balance • Be reasonable about what you'll need, consider using campus microwaves and refrigerators.
Budget • Plan what you can afford and prioritize items you actually need and what you simply want.
Register • Create an online registry so family can help buy college items as graduation or other gifts.
Shipping • Find online free shipping; retailers such as Bed Bath & Beyond will send items to stores near campus.
Source: FreeShippingcom; Bed Bath & Beyond