If it seems like back-to-school items are hitting stores earlier than ever, that's because they are.
Retailers are stocking shelves with pencils, backpacks and shoes long before the first bell based on the belief that people will buy in dribs and drabs this year rather than all at once.
National retail officials estimate families will spend $634.78 on back-to-school supplies, clothing and accessories, down about 8 percent from last year when spending reached record levels. Parents will buy what their kids need, but will look to cut corners and reuse anything that's still good, said Matthew Shay, National Retail Federation's president and CEO.
Of particular note: when people will shop. The federation's recent back-to-school survey found that 24 percent of consumers plan to hit the stores two months before school starts, the highest percentage in the survey's 11-year history.
Call it another case of retail creep.
We've seen it plenty around Christmastime. Back in the day, stores used to open at 5 a.m. Black Friday. Then it became midnight. Then, last year, some stores went really wild and opened at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving Day.
Retailers blame some of the back-to-school creep on an uncertain economy that still weighs heavily on the average family's mind. The study conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics found eight in 10 school shoppers say economic conditions will affect their spending, the same as last year.
"People have to spread their purchases out because they can't afford to buy everything at once," Shay said.
And they definitely want a deal. Shopping early gives people more time to compare prices — both in stores and online — and cherry-pick the best deals. Sure, that might mean having to buy erasers at one store and markers at another but, in the end, you'll pay less.
Caitlin Tyler, marketing manager at Westfield Citrus Park, said many stores geared up early in anticipation of the tax-free weekend Aug. 2-4. The sales tax exemption covers clothing up to $75 per item and school supplies up to $15. New this year, the tax break also covers certain electronics selling for up to $750, including laptop computers, tablets and e-readers.
The shift in shopping pattern mirrors that of the Christmas season. Officials said shoppers should expect fresh inventory and initial markdowns followed by a short lull and final sales right before school starts.
The stakes are high. Next to Christmas, back-to-school is the second largest shopping season of the year.
Here's another chance to shop for a cause without leaving your house.
QVC, the TV shopping channel and online retailer, will partner with the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund on Super Saturday Live this Saturday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Viewers will be able to buy designer fashions, beauty products, jewelry, accessories and home items at half off the manufacturer's suggested retail price.
Net proceeds will benefit the OCRF's research grants and its Woman to Woman program, which pairs cancer patients with volunteer survivors for support and mentoring. The OCRF is starting the program at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa as part of efforts to expand the program to 15 cities nationwide over the next three years.
Super Saturday Live has raised $6 million for ovarian cancer research and the support program since the live show aired in 2007.
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.