August 4, 2016, 5:04 PM

Back-to-school shopping gets back on track, and the web plays a growing role

Spending is increasing again after a decline in 2015, and a 46% of consumers say they’ll use the internet for back-to-school shopping.

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The most popular month for back-to-school shopping is here, and several consumer surveys predict significant spending increases, with the web showing the biggest year-over-year gains.

The National Retail Federation finds that 46.0% of consumers surveyed will use the web this year to shop for school-related apparel and supplies, a “dramatic jump” from 35.6% last year who said they would shop online. The survey involved 6,809 consumers who were asked about back-to-school and back-to-college plans between June 30 and July 6.

Back-to-school spending for students in kindergarten through 12th grade will hit $27.3 billion this year, up 9.6% from $24.9 billion in 2015, the NRF projects. On average, families of those students say they will spend $235.39 on clothing, $204.06 on electronics, $126.35 on shoes and $107.76 on school supplies, according to the NRF survey.

Spending for students going to college is expected to total $48.5 billion, up 12.5% from $43.1 billion in 2015. “Whether it’s laptops for class or mini-fridges for the dorm, college simply costs more than the lower grades,” NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay says. “Some of these big-ticket items can last all four years, but when they need to be replaced it’s a bigger investment than pencils and lunchboxes.”

Back-to-school spending had declined in 2015—a 6.0% year-over-year decline for K-12 and 11.0% decline for college students—and consumers have returned to “normal” spending levels, which is a positive trend, Davis says. “I think we’re seeing some healthy, realistic increases,” she says. “Consumers are starting to spend again on items they might have foregone last year.”

Retailers are working to ensure they are “firing on all cylinders” with promotions and incentives that are integrated across websites and stores, says Ellen Davis, the NRF’s senior vice president of research and strategic initiatives. The growing shift to online shopping, whether for browsing or purchasing, means retailers must make their stores look good and keep their websites performing well during the high-volume back-to-school season, she says.

Other studies generally support the NRF predictions. Shoppers are expected to spend an average of $273 on school supplies this year, up 11.0% from $246 that parents anticipated spending last year, according to a report from RetailMeNot Inc. The online coupon site operator commissioned two surveys for its study: A Google Consumer Survey was conducted among 1,011 U.S consumers 18 and older from June 8- 10 and marketing consultancy Kelton Global surveyed 1,007 adult U.S. consumers from June 10-16.

About a third (32%) of those in RetailMeNot’s survey say they will shop equally online and in stores, with 9% shopping mostly or completely online and 56% saying they will do most or all back-to-school shopping in stores.

Among online shoppers surveyed by NRF, 89% say they will take advantage of free shipping and 54% will utilize such conveniences as buy online, pick up in store.

Though August is the key month for sales, consumers started their back-to-school shopping earlier this year: 73% say they begin one to two months before school starts, up from 62% who said that last year. Only 22% are waiting for the last week or two, down from 30%, according to the NRF. A February survey of online shoppers by Bizrate Insights, a division of retail marketing vendor Connexity, found that 5% of shoppers said they would start back-to-school shopping in April and 7% said they planned to start before June.

A survey by cash-back affiliate site Ebates finds that 60% of parents will do at least some of their back to school shopping online. No matter what or where they make back-to-school purchases, price is the primary factor, with 55% of respondents saying it has the most influence. Ebates found. Quality of the product was a distance second, with 20% of respondents citing it as the main factor. Propeller Insights conducted the survey of 1,024 adults and 501 teens on behalf of Ebates, a subsidiary of global internet services company Rakuten Inc., in June.

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