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Retail eyeing a cure for the summertime blues

Despite lackluster June sales forecasts during what's typically a clearance month for retailers, there are early indications that the back-to-school shopping season may give retailers the jump-start they need.

Following months of playing catch-up after the West Coast port strikes earlier this year, the National Retail Federation on Wednesday said that June import volume rose 5.5 percent compared with the prior year, with July volume expected to increase 7.3 percent. That growth indicates retailers are placing bigger bets on their inventory levels.

Back-to-school shopping at a Target store in Chicago.
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Back-to-school shopping at a Target store in Chicago.

The NRF data follow a report by digital advertising technology firm Rubicon Project, which found that nearly a quarter of parents with children in kindergarten through 12th grade have already started making purchases for the upcoming school year.

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And last month, a separate study by the National Retail Federation found that 29 percent of households with children between the ages of 6 and 17 planned to spend more on back-to-school shopping this year—up 5 points compared to 2014.

"U.S. consumer spending recorded its largest increase in nearly six years in May, suggesting that the level of confidence about the future has improved," said Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett, whose consulting firm produces the Global Port Tracker for the NRF.

The back-to-school shopping period is critical for retailers, as it represents the second-largest selling season of the year. Adding to its significance is the fact that many companies look toward the event as an indicator for retail's main period, the winter holidays.

Back-to-school, however, offers a slightly different challenge for retailers. Whereas Christmas shoppers have a set deadline by when they need to finish their shopping, the back-to-school season starts as early as the summer, and can extend all the way through to when the holiday bargains begin.

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Whereas Rubicon's research found that 23 percent of parents have already started making purchases, a separate study by America's Research Group found that 58 percent plan to buy only the essentials ahead of the first school bell, and finish up during the Christmas sales.

As for the Web, back-to-school Google searches tend to peak in August, according to analysis by PM Digital.

Most retailers will begin setting their stores with back-to-school merchandise in the coming weeks. The National Retail Federation will issue its forecast for how much consumers will spend on the event later this month.