Back to school budget blues?

by Becky Gillette

Published: August 11,2008

While soaring prices for gasoline have impacted people’s discretionary income for things such as eating out and vacations out of state, it doesn’t seem to have had much impact on back-to-school shopping.

“Compared to last year, we’re up about 60%,” said Lupe Granados, manager of Fred’s Store in Oxford. “People still need back-to-school supplies like writing tablets, wide rule paper, binders and, of course, backpacks. People just want a bargain and that is what we are here for.”

Picking up

People are shopping earlier this year, says Margie Bedford, store manager of It’s Fashion in Starkville. She said people started school shopping back in June. It’s Fashion is seeing higher sales this year.

“Some people are looking for bargains, but most are buying regularly priced items,” Bedford said. “We’re selling a lot of leggings, khaki clothing and high-waisted jeans. We’re selling to both college age and younger students. It looks like it will be a good season.”

The National Retail Federation (NRF) estimates back-to-school shopping for K-12 accounted for $18 billion in sales in 2007. NRF estimates one-fifth of parents nationwide have set aside a portion of their stimulus check for back-to-school purchases. A survey conducted by BIGresearch for NRF found that the average family with school-aged children will spend $594.24 on back-to-school purchases, compared to $563.49 last year.

Andrea Saffle, marketing director for the Turtle Creek Mall, Hattiesburg, said the mall has seen an increase in traffic as it gets closer to the first day of school. But she described July sales as merely “okay.”

The college crowd?

Saffle expects things to pick up when shopping by college students kicks into full gear once students start arriving to begin classes at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM), William Carey University, Jones Junior College and Pearl River Community College.

“Colleges shopping tends to come later in August,” Saffle said. “Right now it is mostly K-12 school age kids. College starts later and those kids buy for themselves instead of parents buying for them. Once USM and the other colleges start taking in students, we start seeing things pick up. I would say we have gotten off to a little bit of slow start, but we are starting to see it pick up.”

Saffle thinks the current high gas prices have had an impact on shoppers. People may still be spending as much overall, but they aren’t coming to the mall as frequently. People are tending to plan trips ahead rather than spontaneously go to the mall several times a week. And it is more common for people to carpool and come in groups.

A lot of schools in the Hattiesburg area have gone to uniforms, and that has been an issue cutting into other clothing sales.

“A lot of stores have added uniform clothing such as khaki pants and shorts and solid color polo shirts,” Saffle said. “And they have been promoting those items. But it does hurt other sales.”

This year, Northpark Mall in Jackson has added the Uniform Store to its store selection to meet customers.

“As you know, many area schools have adopted a uniform,” said Allison Lunsford, director of mall marketing, Northpark Mall. “However, many youth still have a desire to express their individuality and have turned to accessories such as purses and jewelry to do so while still in compliance with the schools’ standards. Northpark Mall stores offer the variety.”

Clothing and school supplies can be cheap compared to purchasing a new computer, which is almost as necessary as book backpacks for college age students these days.

“We are seeing an increase in students at the time,” said Kay Brown, manager of Starkville Computers. “Most of them are looking for laptops. We don’t feel like we have hit our prime demand for student requests yet. That usually comes closer to the middle of August. But we have had a good number of students coming in looking for laptops and software. Many of those customers have been online students.”

Laptops are almost standard equipment, but some students are still working off desktops. Brown said that is acceptable, but desktops don’t have the advantage of being mobile and allowing electronic note taking in class.

The student customers are looking for portability of features. While some are bargain minded, other students don’t have price as the determining factor.

Starkville Computers sees a great number of college students who bring in their computers for service and repairs. Often students fail to have adequate protections for viruses and spyware.

Some surveys have shown that back-to-school shoppers will spend 13% more on electronics this year, with electronic seeing the biggest increase in sales for the year. Spending on clothing and accessories is expected to be flat this year.

“Electronics have evolved from luxuries to necessities, not only for college students but also for their younger siblings,” said NRF president and CEO Tracy Mullin. “While some students may be pleading with mom and dad for an iPod or a cell phone, parents are also investing in desktop or laptop computers, educational software and printers to support their children’s learning.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

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