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Retail sales forecasts: Something doesn't add up

The National Retail Federation's prediction that back-to-school sales will drop 9 percent this year came in stark contrast to broader economic trends, as stronger housing and job markets have helped shape a more confident consumer.

In a call after the survey's release, the trade organization downplayed the correlation between its findings and overall shopper sentiment, explaining that back-to-school purchases are more needs-based than other spending events. This means shoppers that stocked up on essential items last year don't need to buy as much this season.

But while there is some truth behind the NRF's analysis—particularly as it pertains to waning electronics sales—there are some broader economic concerns also weighing on expectations.

Yoon S. Byun | Boston Globe | Getty Images

According to a separate report by Customer Growth Partners, the fact that fewer than 50 percent of working-age adults have full-time jobs, sluggish growth in disposable income, and uncertainty about Puerto Rico and Greece are all dampening shoppers' appetites.

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"Other than the tech side of it, I'm not sure I'm buying that excuse," said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners.

NRF's Back-to-School Spending Survey, which polled 6,500 shoppers, found that total spending for school-age and college students is expected to reach $68 billion this year. That's down from $74.9 billion in 2014, with revenues from electronics projected to be particularly weak. Among K-12 parents, spending in this category is expected to drop 7 percent, whereas for college students, it's anticipated to fall 15 percent.

But electronics is not the only category in which parents plan to hold back. Spending on shoes is expected to drop about 6 percent among both groups, and apparel spending is also expected to decline across the board.

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Prosper Insights' Stacie Severs Nelson, whose firm conducts the NRF study, emphasized that the results do not take anything away from the "consistently more confident consumer" she's seen in 2015. Along those lines, the survey found that 76.4 percent of families with school-age children will alter their spending because of the economy. That's down from 81.1 percent in 2014, and is the lowest in the seven years the organization has asked that question.

"There's definitely an up-and-down flow with back-to-school spending," she said.

The National Retail Federation's forecast came one day after the Commerce Department's reading on June retail sales fell short of expectations. But it's not all bad news. Moody's on Wednesday raised its outlook on the U.S. retail industry to positive from stable, and maintained its sales forecast of 4 to 5 percent growth for the year.

What's more, Severs Nelson said that because back-to-school sales are generated from a smaller set of shoppers who are making more needs-based purchases, it is not a direct reflection of what's to come over the holidays.

Johnson agreed that back-to-school is "at best an imperfect predictor of holiday sales." That's because it's impossible to predict dramatic turns in the economy that could happen once school starts. The season can, however, indicate which retailers are poised to be winners and losers.

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"If a retailer's doing lousy there's a good chance they'll do lousy at holiday," he said. "It's not perfect that way but it's much better than the overall macro forecast."

Although Johnson's forecast differs from the NRF's in that it's calling for growth, a 2.7 percent increase would still fall short of what is historically normal for back-to-school sales, at around 4.5 or 5 percent growth.