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Back-To-College Spending to Fall this Year: Survey

U.S. parents with school-aged children will spend more on back-to-school merchandise this year, helped by tax rebates, but spending for back-to-college will fall as students struggle with the spike in gas prices, according to a survey released Tuesday.

Families with children in kindergarten through 12th grade are expected to spend $594.24 for back-to-school items this year, up from $563.49 last year, according to the National Retail Federation's 2008 back-to-school survey.

But back-to-college spending is forecast to drop 7 percent to $599.38 per person from an average of $641.56 last year, the survey found.

"This year, college students have gotten a dose of reality," said NRF spokeswoman Ellen Davis. "Gas prices are way up. Many of them did not get an economic stimulus check because their parents claimed them as dependents, so they are having to find ways to cut back."

Electronics will be hit by the back-to-college pullback. The survey found that college students expect to spend $211.89 on tech gadgets for the new school year -- down 18 percent from $258.43 a year ago.

In recent years, college students used money from high school graduation or cash from summer jobs to buy the latest electronics, Davis said. But with the national average retail price for gasoline surging roughly 40 percent this year, that cash is going toward filling up the gas tank.

"This year, you're really going to see the momentum in electronics come from parents and younger children instead of the college crowd," Davis said.

Parents with school-aged children are expected to spend $151.61 on electronics for back-to-school, up from $129.24 last year.

Spending on clothing is forecast to rise to $234.51 from $231.80, while spending on school supplies will increase to $98.47 from $94.02 last year.

To help support their spending, the survey found that one-fifth of parents set aside a portion of their tax rebate check for back-to-school purchases.

The checks are part of Washington's $152 billion 2008 economic stimulus package, and about 130 million households are receiving some $100 billion in cash to spend.

Closely Watched Season

This back-to-school season is being closely watched by retailers. U.S. consumers, squeezed by surging food and fuel prices and the crumbling housing market, have curbed purchases of discretionary items like clothes and jewelry in favor of necessities like food and toiletries.

"Retailers are looking at back-to-school and back-to-college season more carefully because it will be a good indicator for the (winter) holiday season in terms of what people are buying, what kind of an appetite the customer has -- if they're really focused on price, or if they can be persuaded by exclusive labels and celebrity endorsements," Davis said.

Seventy-three percent of consumers intend to do their back-to-school shopping at discount retailers. Almost 57 percent said they will head to department stores, 48 percent will go to clothing stores and 21.4 percent will go to electronic stores.

To offset high gasoline prices, 24.8 percent of back-to-school shoppers said they will buy online, up from 21.4 percent last year.

The survey was conducted for NRF by BIGresearch. The poll of 8,361 consumers was conducted from July 1 until July 8.

The NRF said the back-to-college average consumer spending figures differ from previous years because they exclude spending on textbooks. The NRF said previous year figures have been recalculated to account for the changes.

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