Consumer Nation

Is Pent-Up Retail Demand About to Pop?


Until last fall we were a nation that shopped until we dropped. Will back-to-school shopping season be a catalyst to get shoppers back to their old spending habits?

An annual survey released today by Deloitte offers a rare glimmer of hope for the retail sector. The survey showed fewer consumers (64 percent) expect to cut back on back-to-school spending compared with last year when 71 percent said they were pulling back.

On its surface that's a positive, but a look closer at the details suggests we shouldn't expect shoppers to revert back to their free-spending ways.

Shoppers say they will be hunting for bargains. About 74 percent say they intended to buy more items on sale and 65 percent say they're buying only family necessities, according to the Deloitte survey.

Nearly half also say they will be shopping different stores than they usually do to find lower prices. Expect discounters and value department stores to benefit. Ninety percent of those surveyed said that's where they would be heading to stock up for school. That trend could help retailers such as Wal-Mart , JCPenney's and Kohl's , among others.

What will be interesting is whether some pent-up demand finally pops. In June, sales were particularly weak for children and teen apparel retailers, and since children keep on growing, there may be some shopping that must be done.

Consumers have been saving more, so there may be some money earmarked for back-to-school buying.

According to Deloitte's Stacy Janiak, consumer attitudes have shifted as well.

"Last year, we were going in with a lot of uncertainty," Janiak told CNBC. "And we saw people really concerned about the items that were going to take away from their wallet, so the high energy prices, the high gas prices, the high food prices. Now we see people more concerned about employment and the general economy, so it's more about what's left in the wallet versus what's coming out of it."

(To hear more about the retail sector from Janiak and the Deloitte survey, watch the video below.)

Retailers Getting Schooled

Still, retailers are being cautious. The National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, estimates back-to-school spending to fall 7.7 percent from last year, with households with students in grades K-12 expected to spend an average of $548.72 on school supplies, compared with $594.24 in 2008.

Those sending students back-to-college should spend about twice as much as K-12 students, and more than they did a year ago. Those heading to the dorms will start shopping earlier than the younger students, but for many in both categories, the shopping has begun.

The NRF's back-to-college survey, which was conducted by BIGresearch found parents and students will spend about $618.12, up three percent over last year's $599.38.

The NRF's research also found drugstores will be another back-to-school winner. Stores such as CVS , Walgreens , and Rite-Aid have been widening their product offerings and as a result more shoppers are turning to them for back-to-school supplies.

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