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Retailers take broad view of 'back-to-school' items

Xavier Arnau | E+ | Getty Images

Back-to-school spending is expected to be substantially lower this year, which has retailers expanding their themed sales beyond expected school staples to unexpected items like mattresses and fine jewelry.

Sales for back to school are expected to tally $72.5 billion, down from $83.8 billion in 2012, according to the National Retail Federation. Families with kids in kindergarten through 12th grade will spend an average $634.78, versus $688.62 in 2012, while families of college students will spend $836.83, down from $907.22 last year. Eight in 10 families surveyed said economic conditions would affect their spending.

As a retail "holiday," back to school is second in spending only to Christmas. So slow retail sales and consumer spending cutbacks have made retailers more eager to capitalize on the back-to-school audience: Parents who, even if they can't afford to spend freely, still have to buy certain staples to send their kids off to class, said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the NRF. "All of these different companies are fighting for the same consumer," she said. "We're expecting retailers to be incredibly promotional."

The competition is broad. It's not unusual these days to see unexpected retailers pushing back-to-school items or sales, like the free shipping deals on backpacks and lunch bags at home goods store Pottery Barn Kids.

Many sales also extend beyond the usual back-to-school roster to include items more clearly intended for grownups. Unless you really think a college-bound kid is in the market for luxe sheets and comforters in the "Three Looks for the Dorm" showcase on flash sale site OneKingsLane.com or the high-end digital SLR cameras included on Amazon.com's "Back to School" landing page.

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That marketing won't necessarily succeed, said Jeff Green,an independent retail analyst based in Phoenix. Sure, parents could decide to visit Store B instead of A because they can knock a few items off of their own shopping lists, but money is tight enough for most shoppers that savings on one item aren't likely to be spent on unplanned splurges.

"Every dollar counts and people are spending only what they need to," Green said. "The thought process is; if I spend less, I have more for Christmas." (Another indication shoppers may not be swayed: According to the NRF, many families said they plan to spend less this year because they are reusing items bought last year.)

Granted, consumers without kids and parents who do have extra cash to spend on themselves are likely to find some back-to-school sales worth investigating, said Brent Shelton, a spokesman for FatWallet.com. Competitive prices on school supplies such as printer paper ($1 at Staples) and pens can be worthwhile to resupply a home office, and discounts on large-sized bedding sets (up to 75 percent off at Macy's) and small kitchen appliances such as toasters and blenders are often wrapped into college-themed sales.

Summer clearances add other items to the list, notably lawn and garden items, furniture and summer clothing. "As a consumer, whenever stores have big sales like back to school, they're going to have storewide sales," Shelton said. Prices on those items can be at some of their lowest year round.

The best back-to-school deals for the non-students, however, are likely to be laptop computers.

"It's almost impossible to buy a bad laptop this summer," said Louis Ramirez, a senior writer for sale-tracking site Dealnews.com. Prices have dipped as low as $300 for packages including not just the computer, but also extras like software or a printer. Amazon.com is offering a $100 site gift card with purchase of select models, and Apple has $100 in app store credit—although the latter is restricted to students with a ".edu" email address.

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