Did retailers launch back-to-school sales earlier than usual?

Kathi Thompson shops for back-to-school clothes Tuesday with her daughters, Sienna, 8, left, Lexi, 12, and Brooklyn, 4, at the Gordmans at Lakeside Hills Plaza.

First there was Black Friday creep as retailers rolled out holiday deals days and even weeks before the traditional day-after-Thanksgiving shopping day. Now, scattered reports this year of pre-Fourth of July back-to-school promotions have some experts predicting back-to-school creep.

The back-to-school shopping season is second only to the holiday season in terms of sales, and some retailers jumped on the bus earlier than ever this year, said Pam Goodfellow, consumer insights director for BIGinsight, which conducts surveys for the National Retail Federation.

“It's their attempt to one-up one another by getting an early start,” Goodfellow said.

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Others said that most retailers kept to a traditional schedule and that cases of back-to-school creep were few.

“Based on our research, the release of back-to-school promotions did not come earlier than in years past,” said Mike Niemira, senior vice president and chief economist, director of research for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

However, being the first kid on the block could be an advantage this year. According to experts, retailers will be vying for a smaller pool of back-to-school dollars.

Back-to-school and back-to-college spending is expected to reach about $73 billion this year — that's heftier than 2011 or 2010 totals, but it's an $11billion drop from last year when consumers splurged on the kids to the tune of $83.8billion, the result of pent-up demand, according to the National Retail Federation's 2013 back-to-school survey.

Parents plan to “ask their kids to reuse what they can for the upcoming school season,” said Matthew Shay, NRF president and chief executive.

Back-to-school spending is expected to reach $26.7 billion this year, compared with $30.3billion last year; back-to-college purchases are expected to hit $45.8 billion, down from $53.5 billion last year. Parents of school-age children are expected to spend about $635 this year, down from $688 last year. The college-bound will spend an average of $837 on apparel, electronics, dorm furnishings and other items this year, down from $907 last year, the NRF survey said.

Leaner consumer budgets may have prompted some retailers to launch their back-to-school deals as early as June. Historically, retailers have waited until mid-July to begin pushing the pens, pencils, notebooks, fall and winter clothing, and dorm furnishings.

Shoppers such as Nicole Wolfe of the Elkhorn area say they plan to spread out their back-to-school shopping over several weeks, even if their children — in Wolfe's case, 10-year-old Abigail and 8-year-old Haley — are “all about getting their back-to-school shopping” done in one fell swoop.

“I can wait. I'm in no hurry. I'm all about sales,” said Wolfe, who recently stocked up on notebooks and other supplies for her daughters at the OfficeMax near 120th and L Streets.

Following its normal timetable, Omaha-based Gordmans began gearing up for back-to-school sales in July, same as last year, said Mike Morand, Gordmans executive vice president and chief merchandising officer.

The timing was perfect for Kathi Thompson of Omaha, who ventured forth on her first day of back-to-school shopping this week with daughters Lexi, 12, Sienna, 8, and Brooklyn, 4.

“July is our birthday month. We have a couple birthdays in July. Once that's ended, we start back-to-school shopping,” said Thompson, working her way through the Gordmans at 17202 Lakeside Hills Plaza in search of deals on clothing and shoes.

Thompson's two older daughters had $75 to spend on back-to-school outfits, which they used to buy jeans, shoes and shirts appropriate for fall weather.

College students and their parents are also expected to trim their budgets this year, reusing some items and limiting their shopping lists to necessities.

The drop may be due, in part, to the growing number of college students who've opted to live at home this year. Nearly 48 percent of students plan to commute to campus, up from about 43 percent last year, the survey reported.

One of the bright spots retailers are anticipating is increased spending on dorm and apartment furnishings. Two in five families plan to spend an average of $104.76 on new bedding and other decor compared with $100.27 last year, the NRF said.

That's good news for many retailers, such as Bed Bath & Beyond, Target and Gordmans, that have beefed up their back-to-college sections in the last few years and are promoting bedding, chairs, lamps and other items designed to fit the confines of college dormitory living.

Target and Bed Bath & Beyond are advertising mattress protectors, pillow protectors and insect repellents, intended to keep bedbugs at bay. At Target, in-store signs that read “College right here” and “Everything for U” point the way to foam mattress toppers and comforters.

Shoppers stepping into a Bed Bath & Beyond will find campus checklists and guides. The retailer also offers students and parents the ability to shop at their hometown store but pick up the items at a store near campus.

This year's big sellers include bedding, bath items, closet organizers and, yes, bedbug protectors, a Bed Bath & Beyond spokeswoman said.

Gordmans has stocked its shelves with storage trunks, bedding-in-a bag sets, foldable moonchairs, electronic accessories and everything zebra striped — this year's pattern.

The merchandise mix drew Elizabeth Story, 18, about to enter her freshman year at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and her mother, Kathy Story.

Elizabeth will share an on-campus suite with three other students and had already spent about $250 on a comforter, shower caddy, laundry bag, wastebasket and specially sized dorm sheets.

“This is our last stop,” Kathy Story said.

The last items on Elizabeth's list? A table lamp and body pillow.

“I like this one,” Elizabeth said, reaching for a fuzzy blue body pillow. “It will match my new comforter.”

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