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Back-to-school sales expected to be down slightly from last year

July 21, 2011 | 12:02 am

The all-important back-to-school shopping season is threatening to slow the retail industry's recent momentum.

As retailers roll out fresh back-to-school merchandise and tout early deals, a "shadow of insecurity" tied to the nation's slow economic recovery still looms over many consumers and could hamper their spending, according to the National Retail Federation. 

The retail trade group said in a report Thursday that families with children in kindergarten through high school would spend an average of $603.63 on apparel, school supplies and electronics, down slightly from $606.40 during last year's back-to-school season. 

According to the survey, budget-conscious shoppers will purchase more store-brand or generic items, comparison shop more online and shop for sales. And more people will put their shopping off until late in the season: 31.2% of respondents said they would begin their shopping one or two weeks before school starts, up from 24.8% last year.

Department stores are expected to see a surge in back-to-school traffic thanks to private label brands, promotions and aggressive social media campaigns. According to the survey, 57% of back-to-school shoppers will head to a department store, up from 53.9% last year and the most in the survey's eight-year history. 

At the college level, parents and students will spend an average of $808.71 on apparel, electronics, dorm furnishings and food items, down from $835.73 last year. 

Combined kindergarten through college spending is expected to reach $68.8 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. Back-to-school is typically the second-largest sales driver of the year (after the winter holidays). 

Another retail group, the International Council of Shopping Centers, has taken a slightly more optimistic tone, predicting this month that sales for the back-to-school season would rise 3% year-over-year.

Still, that would be a modest gain and below the mid-single-digit sales growth the industry has seen for much of this year.

-- Andrea Chang 

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