Despite long-term spending cutbacks, Metro Detroit retailers say families are picking up handfuls of snazzy notebooks, preppy sweater vests and trendy messenger bags as they prepare to send their children back to school.
Parents who have held the line on back-to-school spending in recent years are relaxing those reins a bit, experts say, which may mean more willingness to invest in computers, clothing and shoes for K-12 children.
"It's an opportunity for some folks to loosen up and to do some shopping they might not otherwise do," said Ted Vaughan, partner with consulting firm BDO USA LLP's Retail and Consumer Products practice in Dallas.
This year's trends include "Angry Birds" folders and geometric designs and patterns for the elementary set. Tweens are targeted with brightly colored shirts and skirts. And teens are going for the clean-cut, "One Direction" boy-band-inspired togs and gear.
After holding back for some time, families are finding last year's backpacks and other leftover gear are just too worn out for another go-around, according to the National Retail Federation, an industry trade group. Its marketing survey group estimates that parents with children in grades K-12 will spend an average of $688 to outfit students, up 14 percent from $603 in 2011.
But the retail group anticipates and experts agree that parents will expect contributions from older children, especially if they want the latest and greatest in terms of new products.
"Students appear to be contributing more to the overall family get-ready-for-school budget, given increased demand among students driven by Internet advertising and social media," said Mark Davidoff, Michigan managing partner for Deloitte LLP.
"This level of demand, which includes a desire to use the latest technology such as smartphones and tablets in their studies, is a level of demand that parents don't want to or can't satisfy on their own."
Retailers from department stores to office-supply chains to off-price discounters depend on back-to-school shopping from July through September to bolster their balance sheets. Spending this year for children ages 6 to 17 is expected to top $30.3 billion, according to the National Retail Federation.
Sales are predicted to improve nationally, in part because of a surge in school enrollment. But Michigan's declining school enrollment and aging population probably will mean less for southeast Michigan stores, Metro Detroit demographer Kurt Metzger said.
It also means retailers such as Connie's Children's Shop in St. Clair Shores have to do more to counter the trend, mostly with coupons and other in-store and online incentives to draw people through their doors.
Early birds flocked to Connie's, known for its apparel, shoes and accessories, said owner Denise Kort. The store experienced a sales jump in June, Kort said, mostly because she offered customers a 20 percent coupon and discounts on school uniforms. In late July, she sent out another coupon worth $10 off a $50 purchase encouraging people to "jump-start your back-to-school shopping."
"I wait all year long for August," said Kort, the second-generation store owner. "They tend to browse in June and July, surveying what they might need and setting a budget. Then they come back in August to buy the essentials."
Department stores have made inroads in the back-to-school season, according to the National Retail Federation.
"We see shoppers coming here and starting their school and seasonal shopping," said Phil Whitsel, spokesman for Birch Run Premium Outlets near Flint.
"Shoppers continue to be value-oriented, so the outlets continue to grow in popularity and serve local shoppers -- those who travel within a 45 to 60 mile radius to go seasonal shopping -- as well as many Canadian visitors."
Due to an increase in demand, Gorman's Home Furnishing and Interior Design recently expanded its Home Office/Small Office shop to include brand names such as Jesper, Hooker and Sligh Desk.
"Sales of desks, both for students and the home and small office, pick up as we near the fall season," said Gorman's President Tom Lias.
Although the weak economic growth has changed the way people spend, parents view going back to school as an investment, said Melinda Crump, a spokeswoman for financial information company Sageworks Inc. Stores offering even small discounts will attract frugal consumers looking for a bargain.
Retailers and shopping-center owners are coming up with new ideas and online tools that help students find the "right" looks for them. As a result, chains emphasizing new lines that help create one-of-a-kind outfits are pulling students into their stores.
"Girls are dressing up more and the guys are into tailored looks," said Linda McIntosh, corporate director of communications and marketing for the Somerset Collection, the high-end shopping destination in Troy.
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