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Back to School by the Numbers

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Retailers are avid readers of tea leaves, especially this time of year. With back-to-school and back-to-college combining to create the second-biggest consumer spending season behind the winter holidays, everyone always asks whether July and August are a good indicator of what’s to come.

This year, as in most, the answer is a resounding, “maybe.”

On its surface, NRF’s annual Back-to-School forecast indicates that a fantastic year is ahead of us. Parents are expected to spend an average of $689 on K-12 school supplies, a dramatic 14 percent increase over last year for a total of $30.3 billion.

Average spending on college supplies ($907) is up 12 percent for an even larger total of $53.5 billion.

But with 85 percent saying the economy has affected their shopping, consumers told NRF research partner BIGinsight that they’re being as frugal as ever. Two-thirds plan to shop at discount stores and 40 percent will go online, up from 31 percent last year. And 14 percent are scrimping to the point they plan to shop in thrift stores.

Those contradictions are also seen in the government’s reports on retail sales. June marked two straight years of year-over-year increases — yet it also yielded the third consecutive month-to-month decline. Consumers are clearly spending more, but they are keeping us guessing on how much more and for how long.

NRF’s Global Port Tracker report shows retailers will import between 6 and 12 percent more merchandise for the holiday season than they did last year, but those percentages could be artificially inflated because last year’s figures were so low. And the report counts only the number of cargo containers imported, not the value of what’s inside.

With all this uncertainty, one thing is clear: Whatever recovery our nation’s economy has experienced remains fragile. And in this environment, it doesn’t take much to bring the growth we have achieved to a grinding halt.

That’s why these statistics should get the attention of every policymaker in Washington, and make them want to revisit laws and regulations that stand in the way of economic recovery. Main Street retailers, for example, face unfair competition from online merchants because of an outdated loophole that leaves most online purchases free of sales tax. Job-killing tax increases set to take effect in January have yet to be addressed. And after the Supreme Court’s ruling on health care reform, retailers and other employers are facing mandates that could cost the nation even more jobs beginning in 2014.

With November’s elections quickly approaching, Americans will soon decide who will hold the White House for the next four years and who will fill the seats of the House and Senate chambers. Whoever wins those offices, the No. 1 priority must remain the same — economic recovery and job creation. We can’t afford any more Back-to-School seasons in which one in seven Americans are compelled by a bad economy to purchase their children’s school supplies in thrift stores.