July 21, 2011, 3:50 PM

Back to school for e-commerce

More consumers will rely on the web for school supplies, the NRF says.

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A sputtering economy could bring good news to e-retailers during this year’s back-to-school shopping season. More parents and students say they will shop online for school supplies, and foot traffic to stores is expected to decline, according to new studies.

U.S. Consumers will spend more than $68 billion on books, apparel, paper, pencils, backpacks and other supplies this school year, with an increasing amount likely to be spent with online retailers, according to the National Retail Federation; the amount includes spending for kindergarten through college students, and, says the NRF, represents the largest spurt in consumer spending outside of the holiday shopping season.

The trade group says that 15.3% of consumers expect to shop more online this year for K-12 school supplies because of the poor state of the U.S. economy, up from 12.3% last year.  For college supplies, 18.8% of consumers will shop more online because of the economy, barely up from 18.2% last year.

Overall, 31.7% of consumers buying supplies for K-12 students will shop online this year, up from 30.8% last year. For college supplies, the increase is more significant, with 33.4% of consumers planning to purchase on the web, up from 28.6% in 2010.

With economic recovery still slow, some consumers appear ready to use the web more often to make sure they find the best prices and deals. Nearly 30% of consumers buying for K-12 students say the economy will lead them to rely more on comparative shopping on the web, virtually the same as last year.  Almost 31% of consumers buying college supplies will more often comparison shop on the web, up from 23.2% in 2010. “Retailers understand consumers are extremely focused on value and are taking this opportunity to offer substantial savings on merchandise,” says Matthew Shay, the trade group’s president and CEO.

The National Retail Federation based its results on a survey of 8,684 consumers conducted from July 1-6 by BIGResearch.

The trade group’s survey found that 57% of K-12 shoppers will head to department stores for school supplies, up from 54% last year; for college supplies, almost 47% of shoppers will hit department stores, up from about 43% last year.

Another report released this week, from retail analytics firm ShopperTrak, predicts that foot traffic to retail stores during this year’s back to school shopping season will decline 2.9%, thanks to relatively high gas prices. But national retail sales will increase 3.8%, meaning fewer trips but larger purchases, ShopperTrak says.

The report did not specifically address e-commerce trends, but other reports in recent months have said that more consumers are shopping with online retailers as a result of rising fuel costs. MasterCard Worldwide, for instance, linked a 15.2% year-over-year increase in e-commerce spending in June in part to high gas prices.

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