The US back-to-school season, now in full swing, looks likely to be a highly satisfactory one for retailers with parents planning to spend 20 per cent more than last year, says Jane Mallin.

Two separate retail surveys showed this week that the US back to school market is booming. The National Retail Federation (NRF) surveyed 883 parents of children between ages 6 to 17 and found that they intended to spend an average of $549 on back to school items.

The 2000 American Express Retail Index unearthed a similar story, with average spend just one dollar lower at $548 - an increase of 20 per cent from 1999.

"It's the largest increase since we began the survey five years ago," said John Theiss, vice president, retail industries, at American Express.

It's not a huge revelation that in-store shopping is still the preferred retail channel. More than 90 per cent of parents planned to buy most of the goods in a shop. However, other channels also get a look-in, with parents hoping to get the back to school shopping done with the least amount of hassle.

Home shopping is growing in popularity, with 20.7 per cent of respondents intending to use catalogues and 13 per cent planning to use the Internet.

Internet makes in-roads as mainstream alternative
The survey, conducted for NRF by Virginia-based Market Facts, Inc, also suggests that the Internet is making in-roads to becoming a mainstream back-to-school shopping alternative.

Of those respondents who said they would use the Internet to aid their back-to-school shopping in 1999, 57.5 per cent said they were using the Internet for the first time; this year that number dropped to 44 per cent. Moreover, the percentage of repeat "back-to-school surfers" increased this year to 56 per cent from 42.5 per cent in 1999. These figures suggest that parents are growing more comfortable with shopping online.

The industry is beginning to respond to parents' growing confidence in online shopping by launching web-based uniform and back-to-school stores.

Bluelight.com launched its one-stop Internet store in July. It is a temporary outlet and will only run during the back-to-school season, closing on September 3.

JCPenney and Dickies have taken another tack. The two companies joined forces to launch an online boys uniform range.

Similar to the back-to-school market, the public school uniform market is also growing rapidly, kickstarted by a study from the National Association of School Principals which showed that 52 per cent of schools with mandatory uniforms reported a boost in student performance.

"Uniforms allow children to concentrate on their studies and provide a sense of unity and school pride," said Benjamin Demps, superintendent of the Kansas City school district.

Dickies' popular boys' range is running online and in JCPenney's Fall/Winter catalogue.

Parents want to spend spend spend
The increase in spending is being driven by parents, who will spend an average of $424 this year on everything from clothes to computer software - up 24 per cent from $342 in 1999, according to American Express.

Teenagers will spend an average of $124 on back-to-school shopping - up 10 per cent from $113 last year.

These findings are the results of a nationwide telephone survey in June and July, to which 255 parents responded, and a separate survey of 500 boys and girls, ages 12-17, also conducted nationwide by phone, American Express said.

"If you look at the way the economy is going, there's a tremendous amount of consumer confidence out there," said American Express's Theiss.

Retailers and manufacturers are doing their best to cover the back-to-school shoppers from every angle, with Sears and Levi's uniting to target the teens.

Pester power: Levi's and Sears target children and teens with pop icon

Last week the two companies unveiled an integrated marketing campaign starring the Grammy winner Christina Aguilera.

The pop icon will feature in Sears and Levi's products in three national back-to-school newspaper insert ads promoting juniors, young men's and children's departments.

"Sears is becoming a teen shopping destination and we want to make sure that Levi's is there in the forefront of young shoppers' minds," said Sean Dee, director of marketing, Levi's.

Parents have the last word
So how much pester power do children exert over their parents? The NRF survey suggests that while shopping is still pretty much a joint effort, parents appear largely in control of which items ultimately end up in the shopping basket.

The survey shows that a majority of parents (59 per cent) say their children have only "some" or "no" influence over what is bought for back-to-school and where it is purchased.

A smaller, more easily swayed selection of parents (39.3 per cent) say their children have "a large influence" over or "make all the back-to-school shopping decisions."

The NRF poll also found that for some, the back-to-school season is in full swing, with 10.8 per cent of parents having already begun their shopping. A majority (56.4 per cent) said they plan to do their shopping in August.

2000 Back-To-School NRF/MarketFacts Inc Survey Results

Survey Size
3,000 national telephone interviews
Total Respondents
883 parents with children age 6-17 years
Survey Dates
July 14-19, 2000

Question #1 - How much do you plan to spend on back-to-school shopping for your children this year?

$5,000 or more
0.9%
$1,000 to $4,999
12.3%
$600 to $999
9.0%
$500 to $599
10.0%
$400 to $499
7.7%
$300 to $399
16.5%
$200 to $299
14.4%
$100 to $199
7.8%
$1 to $99
3.1%
Nothing
9.1%
Don't know
7.2%
Refused/No answer
1.9%

Question #2 - As you know, there are many different ways to buy back-to-school items. Please tell me whether you plan to make back-to-school purchases in any of the following ways.**

In retail stores
95.2%
Through mail-order catalogs
20.7%
Over the Internet
13.0%
None of the above
4.2%

** Percentages will not add up to 100% as respondents could be shopping in more than one retail channel.

Question #3 - (Base: Plan to buy back-to-school items over the Internet) Will this be your first time using the Internet to buy back-to-school items?

Yes
44.0%
No
56.0%
Don't know
0
Refused
0

Question #4 - How much influence do your children have over what you buy and where you shop for back-to-school items?

None
14.6%
Some
44.4%
A large influence
28.9%
Your children make all the back-to-school buying decisions.
10.4%
Don't know
0.9%
Refused/No answer
0.8%

Question #5 - When do you plan to begin shopping for back-to-school items? Would you say…

In July
21.5%
In August
56.4%
In September
5.3%
After the Fall school semester begins
3.0%
Already started school shopping
10.8%
Won't be doing any back-to-school shopping
0.7%
Don't know
0.6%
Refused/No answer
1.6%

The National Retail Federation (NRF) is the world's largest retail trade association. NRF members represent an industry that encompasses more than 1.4 million U.S. retail establishments, employs more than 20 million people and registered 1999 sales of $3 trillion. NRF's international members operate stores in more than 50 nations.