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The second-busiest shopping season is here, but don't expect fireworks

Customers shop for back-to-school supplies at a Target store in Colma, California.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Customers shop for back-to-school supplies at a Target store in Colma, California.

As retailers gear up for what's expected to be a slower back-to-school selling season, those companies that manage to get shoppers in the door early are likely to reap the biggest rewards.

Whereas the average household with children enrolled in kindergarten through high school plans to spend an average $488 on back-to-school shopping, those families that started before July will spend an average $692, according to a new survey by Deloitte.

As time passes, that figure declines. While those who planned to start shopping early in July said they would spend roughly $619, those who intend to wait until late August said they'll shell out just $394.

The reasons for this discrepancy are two-fold. First, parents tend to purchase higher-price technology items earlier in the season, so students have ample time to learn how to use their new computers or tablets, said Rod Sides, a vice chairman at Deloitte.

Second, shoppers who start spending earlier are more inclined to stretch out their budgets and add incremental items as the season progresses, whereas those who are financially strapped are more likely to need time to save up for their purchases, which are more often made in cash or on a debit card.

All in, Deloitte expects back-to-school sales will increase between 3 percent and 3.5 percent compared with 2015, Sides said. That's in line with a separate forecast from Customer Growth Partners, which is calling for 3.3 percent growth this year. If that firm's prediction plays out, it would be the softest back-to-school growth since 2012, when sales increased 3.1 percent, according to its estimates.

Nonetheless, Deloitte's research found the majority of shoppers plan to spend the same amount or more as compared with 2015, as they become more confident in the economic recovery. Whereas 55 percent plan to keep their spending in line with last year, 32 percent expect to spend more. Only 13 percent expect to spend less.

"The majority of households say their finances are solid," Sides said.

Similar to last year, Sides said he expects back-to-school shopping to take place across a broader time frame than in the past. Deloitte's survey backs up that theory, with 58 percent of shoppers saying they plan to start making purchases before August.

Amazon's Prime Day sales event, held last week, and similar "Black Friday in July" discounts are likely driving some of these early purchases, Sides said. Whereas many consumers used to hold out for their state's sales tax holidays to make back-to-school purchases, they can now get a better deal by taking part in these promotional events, which offer a larger percentage off their purchase. Customer Growth Partners predicts Amazon alone will account for a quarter of the expected $17 billion increase in back-to-school sales.

"Consumers are getting smarter about the gimmicks that are out there," Sides said.

Yet the mix of what they're spending on is changing, Sides noted. As schools start to require more high-tech supplies, they're spending more on items including electronic textbooks.

Deloitte based its findings off a survey of 1,200 shoppers between June 22 to 27. To be included, the respondents had to have at least one child scheduled to attend kindergarten through high school.