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Back-to-school shoppers seeking deals beyond tax holiday and sales

July 29, 2018

Back-to-school shoppers seeking deals beyond tax holiday and sales

CLEVELAND, Ohio – From next weekend’s Ohio sales-tax holiday to a flurry of in-store ads, online promotions and mail, back-to-school shopping is in full swing.

But the seasonal marketing crush, including next week’s Ohio sales tax holiday, doesn’t necessarily mean families will do most of their purchasing during the next month.

Take Toni Hicks, a Richmond Heights resident and mother of four. She describes herself as a bargain shopper who buys for her kids, students ranging fourth grade to college, throughout the year - not just right before school starts.

“Between clothes, shoes, backpacks and school supplies, I’ll probably spend about $1,200 before school starts,” Hicks said while shopping at an East Side Marshalls store. “But I buy stuff all year long when I can find good deals.”

The annual back-to-school shopping season is far from dead, but it’s not the same as yesteryear’s. More parents and college students say they’re waiting for the best deals to complete their shopping lists, according to survey results released this month by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights and Analytics, a consumer-research firm.

The retail federation estimates that back-to-school spending on kids and college students will hit $82.8 billion this year, just shy of last year’s $83.6 billion tally. Families with children in elementary school through high school are likely to spend $27.5 billion of that, or $684.79 on average, barely down from $687.72 last year.

Sales Tax Holiday is a benefit: not a major impact for customers or retailers

But despite back-to-school shopping being a rite of passage for millions of families, data from various studies and retail experts say that no one event drives consumers back-to-school shopping habits, including Ohio’s tax-free weekend.

Last year, Ed Jaroszewicz, marketing director at SouthPark Mall in Strongsville, said that while the tax holiday is a benefit for families, and the prospect of one-time savings boosts traffic at the mall, the weeks leading up to the first day of school tend to be even busier.

College students put electronics first on their lists 

Most of the back-to-school spending forecast is tied to college students. Families with children heading to college, along with college and graduate students buying for themselves, expect to spend $942.17 on average. That’s a slight decline from $969.88 last year, the retail federation reported.

Using back-to-school signs in stores including Target and Kohl’s and catalogues like Dell’s mailers promoting computer deals and discounts, retailers are courting shoppers in an attempt to grab those dollars.

Tech giant Apple recently revealed its back-to-school promotion, similar to last year’s, offering college students and their parents perks if they buy a new Apple product. The freebie is a pair of Beats headphones for buyers of a new Mac or iPad Pro. The offer went live July 12 and will continue until Sept. 25

Noel Springer, 20, recently perused MacBooks at Eton Chagrin Boulevard shopping center in Woodmere, in preparation for her first year at Kent State University. The Kent resident expects to spend about $1,000 on a new computer. While browsing, she couldn’t ignore the row of Beats headphones propped up next to the laptops and iPads.

“I have a computer, but it’s six years old, and it kind of dies on me all of the time,” she said. “I’m looking at both the MacBooks and the iPad Pros. ... But I don’t plan on buying any new clothes before school starts.”

That puts Springer squarely in line with other college shoppers, who are reserving the biggest chunk of their budgets for electronic devices.

But overall, apparel remains the most popular back-to-school category. Families and students of all ages plan to spend $236.90, on average, on clothes, according to the retail federation. Gadgets including computers, calculators and phones came in second, with the typical shopper poised to spend $187.10. 

Shoppers also budgeted for shoes, at $138.66 on average, and school supplies like notebooks, pencils, backpacks and lunch boxes, costing $122.13.

As consumer habits shift, electronics accounted for the biggest change - a drop - in projected back-to-school spending this year, Mark Mathews, vice president of research development and industry analysis for the retail federation, said in a news release.

“Items like laptops, tablets and smartphones are now an everyday part of household life and aren’t necessarily a purchase parents save for the start of the school year,” he said.

Tax holiday offers savings on clothing and supplies 

Ohio parents and students looking to conserve their back-to-school budgets might consider waiting until next weekend, Aug. 3-5, when they can take advantage of extra savings during the state’s fourth annual sales-tax holiday.

The exemption from sales taxes applies Friday through Sunday and is limited to specific items: pieces of clothing priced at $75 or less and school supplies that cost up to $20 each. There’s no limit on the number of qualifying items a shopper can buy.

For more than two decades, various states have offered sales-tax holidays for many items on back-to-school shopping lists. State laws vary widely, as does the option for communities to participate or pass. Consumers generally can save 5 to 10 percent on purchases, depending on local tax rates.

In Northeast Ohio counties, sales taxes range from 6.5 to 8 percent. Ohio requires all vendors, including online retailers, to participate.

Online shopping broadens choices for parents, students

Many big-box retailers have built-up their online presence with swift shipping for online orders and in-store pickup options. Several stores offer families the ability to access school lists online that are created by teachers across the nation. Parents can look up a child’s school to find their customized list and then simply add the items to their digital cart for a hassle-free shopping experience.

Some shoppers likely will turn to Amazon.com for deals and promotions, and the convenience of saving time. Over half the members of Amazon Prime, a program that offers free shipping on many items and other perks for a monthly or annual fee, are millennials, born roughly between the early 1980s and mid-1990s.

That generation now accounts for more than a quarter of the U.S. population. And some millennials are stepping into the role of “back-to-school shopper” for their young children - and bringing along expectations for choice and convenience.

Last year, Amazon.com customers purchased more pencils, pens, notebooks, glue sticks, lunchboxes and backpacks on Prime Day than any other day of the year.

An Amazon spokesman said they choose not to comment for a back-to-school story. Their focus is strictly on last week’s Prime Day, which created a consumer frenzy at an odd time of the year. This year, Prime Day was their most successful yet, with more than 100 million products sold.

But make no mistake, Amazon expects to get a big share of back-to-school purchases. The online giant recently launched two new back-to-school shops, one aimed at K-12 and one for college-bound students.

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