Back-to-School 2012: Will the Positive Forecast Hold?

Despite recent disappointing sales numbers and an uncertain economic environment, the National Retail Federation (NRF) is forecasting a significant increase for this year’s back-to-school sales. Spending is predicted to increase by 14% over 2011, with parents of school-age children expected to spend an average of $688. This optimism is due in part to last year’s mixed back-to-school results, along with an increase in the number or students entering grades K though 12. While certainly no oracle, back-to-school sales are still a helpful indicator of what retailers can expect for the crucial holiday shopping season. Equally important, back-to-school season offers an important snapshot of industry trends and consumer behavior.

Retailers are aware of the central role of online shopping in back-to-school season. More and more parents are taking to their computers or tablet devices to purchase supplies for their children. To the dismay of retailers who rely heavily on their brick-and-mortar locations, parents are discovering that online shopping offers a level of convenience that, in many cases, makes it the shopping method of choice. Add to that the allure of price comparisons, and back-to-school season is set to be as competitive as ever.

Adding to this competition is the still uncertain economic situation – a situation that persists despite the optimistic back-to-school forecast. Parents will be shopping this year, but they will also be keenly aware of discounts and bargains as they stretch each dollar. Retailers are gearing up with exclusive products and splashy advertisements for back-to-school savings. Electronics retailers will be focusing on college students and the important first laptop purchase or the laptop upgrade by offering early deals. When it comes to online shopping, retailers will be taking advantage of a growing consumer base by offering online deals that will likely drive additional purchases.

Another crucial element of the back-to-school mix: the students themselves. Today’s “millennials” are growing up with online shopping as a way of life. As these students spend more time online than any other generation, they are also important drivers of back-to-school purchases. Target’s “uStyler”—an online tool that allows college students to virtually design their own dorm rooms—is just one example of this reality. Today’s students are taking back-to-school purchasing into their own hands, thanks in large part to e-commerce.

While there is no way to know fully if the NRF’s predicted 14% increase in back-to-school sales will hold, there is one certainty: Back-to-school is a stalwart of the shopping calendar. Even in times of economic distress, parents will make the sacrifices necessary to prepare their children for a new school year.

Do you think the NRF’s back-to-school forecast will hold this year?