Back-to-school shopping messages have peppered apparel chain ads since the July 4 fireworks. Office Depot, Staples and Walgreens set up Back to School aisles two weeks ago. Already, Toys "R" Us staged a "Pack to School" sale offering deals on backpacks.
Spooked by a marathon jobless recovery, high gas prices and slumping home prices, families with school-age children are promising to spend no more than in last year's lackluster back-to-school season. Surveys show more people don't plan to start shopping until a week or two before school resumes in late August. And Florida's popular school sales tax holiday this year has been pared to a weekend affair, Aug. 12 through 14.
"The good news is this season we have moved beyond people spending exclusively on price," said Matthew Shay, president of the National Retail Federation. "They want quality and selection, too. But it's still based on need and saving anywhere they can on the basics."
Indeed, the biggest industry trade group found the average back-to-school budget for families with K-12 kids slipped to $603, down $2 from a year ago. Families sending kids to college, who buy more furniture and electronic gadgets, plan to spend $809, down $27 from a year ago.
That all portends another budget-minded back-to-school season with sales of $68.8 billion, essentially the same as last year.
"I'm trying to spend less even though I have another child starting school this time," said Tonya Watson, 30, a St. Petersburg mother of five who works at a nursing home that's been cutting employee work hours.
Judy and John Zook, who is enduring reduced pay and higher benefits contributions at his Pinellas County school maintenance job, face a similar squeeze. They're helping outfit their single-parent daughter's kids who share their home.
"We used go to buy eight or nine outfits for every one of them at department stores," Judy Zook said. "Since the recession, it's only three or four outfits and they're from Walmart."
Consumer confidence took a hit this month, thanks to gas prices, distractions like congressional gridlock and surveys that show consumers are less optimistic about a full recovery within a year.
TJMaxx and Marshalls are touting beefed-up selections of the latest dark-wash denim jeans, belted cardigans for girls and lightweight hoodies for boys. There's the usual flurry of new products like Sharpies dry gel notes Highlighter ($6.99 a four-pack) and washable laundry marker pens ($10.49 for six, but on special for $2.79 at Walgreens).
JCPenney and Sears are planning to be open earlier and later each day of the sales tax holiday weekend. Tyrone Square Mall, like many other area malls, will be staging back-to-school fashion shows that weekend.
Sandy Fortin, chief executive of his family's 27-store network of Play It Again Sports stores in Florida, is counting on back-to-school team sports to offset sharp declines in adult sports like golf.
"People will sacrifice their own discretionary spending before their kids' sports," he said.
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.