PhotoMoms and dads with kids in tow were back at the malls and stores early in search of back-to-school bargains, according to the National Retail Federation's (NRFs) 2013 Back-to-School and Back-to-College Surveys.

The surveys, conducted by Prosper Insights and Analytics, found the average family with school-age children in grades K-12 has already completed more than half (52.1%) of its shopping, compared with 40.1% the same time last year and the highest percent in the survey’s history. College families have completed nearly half of their shopping as well (49.5%).

NRF estimates school and college spending will reach $72.5 billion.

“Given the historic level of early-bird shoppers we’ve seen this year, it is evident that many families still consider price and value when looking for their back-to-school and college needs,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Shopping early and often has become a sign of the times as budget-conscious consumers aim to ease the brunt of large spending events. In the weeks ahead, last minute shoppers can expect promotions to continue through Labor Day as retailers try to make room for fresh fall merchandise.”

Early shoppers

This year’s back-to-school items began flying off the shelves as summer heat began to set in. The survey found 16.3% of families with children in grades K-12 had already completed their shopping lists as of mid-August -- a significant jump from the 7.8% last year. Fewer back-to-school shoppers say they haven’t started their shopping yet (20.9% vs. 26.9% in 2012).

With seven in 10 consumers (76.9%) saying that the economy is still affecting their school and college spending plans, sales and coupons are growing in popularity. Of those who have already started their shopping, the survey found that 42.8% back-to-school shoppers say retailers’ sales, coupons and promotions influenced at least half of their purchases, versus 38.5% last year.

When asked what payment method back-to-school families used most often to purchase school necessities, 46.2% say they will use their debit cards most often, over cash (31.0%) and credit (19.9%). To wrap up their lists, most will head to their favorite discount (57.6%), department (52.4%) and clothing stores (39.5%) and online (25.1%).

Back-to-college shopping

NRF’s Back-to-College Survey indicates that by mid-August, 20.0%) of college shoppers have already completed their shopping, compared with 16.4% who had wrapped up their shopping by this time last year. Although many families were eager to take advantage of the best deals on everything from TVs to fashionable curtains, 28.8% had not yet started their shopping as of mid-August.

Given the cost of many traditional college necessities, such as dorm furniture and electronics, one-third of back-to-college shoppers say at least half of their purchases were influenced by retailers’ special offers, promotions and coupons. And, when it comes to staying on budget, 44.5% of college shoppers will use debit cards most often for their college purchases, and one-quarter will use cash most often. Nearly 25% say they will use their credit cards.

“The importance of sticking to a budget is all too familiar for families today, especially when it comes to big spending events such as back-to school and back to college,” said Prosper Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow. “Savvy shoppers are learning that the method of payment is just as significant as spreading out spending when trying to stay within their means.”

In order to check off the last items on their lists, consumers will continue to look for bargains in stores and online. College shoppers and their families will do the remainder of their shopping at discount (50.0%), department (38.2%) and clothing (31.9%) stores. More than one-third (34.8%) will complete their shopping online.  

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