For retailers, back-to-school is the second most important selling season of the year. But early reports this year are not especially encouraging. Retail sales figures for July, which include early back-to-school shoppers, were weaker than expected.
With their school's recommended shopping list in hand, Sunny Elgar and her 5-year-old son, Park, made their way through an immense Target store in North Seattle recently.
Elgar had the basics for the classroom -- glue sticks, a back pack, sharpened pencils -- but that's not all she bought. Earlier in the day, Elgar bought her son a small selection of new clothes at a value-priced retailer, including a new pair of shoes, pants, a jacket and some shirts.
"It seemed to be very expensive today, even when we went to the cheap place and didn't buy all that much as far as clothing," Elgar said.
The basic school supplies alone quickly add up.
Another mom, Lisa Alm, was also tallying the bill.
"Two girls in elementary school is over $100, and we didn't even get everything," Alm said.
In fact, a recent survey from the National Retail Federation suggests American families plan to spend, on average, about $600 on back-to-school shopping for their kids in grades K through 12. That's about 10 percent more than last year. But 2009 was a dismal year for retailers, and based on relatively weak July sales, those numbers may prove to be overly optimistic.
"The economy is still impacting spending in a tremendous way. We're not seeing people walk into the stores and buy items right away -- they might go home and look for a coupon," says Ellen Davis, vice president at the retail federation.
If people aren't searching for coupons, they may just wait until the item goes on sale. In short, they are being deliberate.
After looking at items online, Debbie Keenen and her college-bound daughter, Molly, put together a realistic budget before setting foot in a big-box store.
"Dad's actually unemployed, so we're sticking to our budget pretty carefully," Keenen said.
"I tried to get the things that were on sale, tried to decide if it's something that you actually need or not," Molly said.
While consumers remain cautious, the retail federation says that unlike last year, many shoppers are now saying they care about more than just the lowest price. They're looking for quality and value as well.
Alison Paul, who heads the retail practice at the consulting firm Deloitte, said its recent consumer survey also offered a glimmer of hope for retailers. But consumers aren't necessarily spending big.
"The No. 1 destination continues to be discount stores, and a good two-thirds of consumers said they would only spend using cash and debit cards," Paul said.
If there were any real surprises in consumer survey data, it may be this: Davis said college men are relatively big spenders.
"We all think that college guys are going to school with maybe a new laptop and ... whatever their mom has packed from the kitchen. That's not the case this year. College guys are spending much more than college women on every single category," she said.
Davis said she can only speculate as to why: Perhaps men are feeling more confident about the economy, or perhaps they are just less willing to spend the time shopping for the best deal.