MIAMI (UPI) — The nation’s elementary, middle and high school students are expected to spend an average of $74.04 on back-to-school supplies this month, and retailers are all fighting to get a piece of the action.

The average adds up to a total $2.3 billion — or $14 billion when you add the $9.2 billion spent on new clothes and shoes and $2.7 billion on electronics.

National Retail Federation President and Chief Executive Officer Tracy Mullin said that might even be enough to provide a significant spark for the sluggish economy.

“With consumers heading to the stores for everything from scissors to sneakers, retailers are hopeful that the back-to-school season will signal the beginning of the economic recovery,” Mullin said.

“The second half is clearly poised for steady sales growth,” he said.

The federation’s survey projected 4.5 percent growth in sales by general merchandise stores, apparel stores, furniture and home improvement stores, electronics and appliance stores and sporting goods, hobby book and music stores in the second half of 2003.

That would be an increase of 2.2 percent from the first half.

The survey conducted by BIGresearch for the federation said 95 percent of the families with school-aged children intends to purchase clothes and school supplies this year, with nearly half planning to buy electronics or computer-related equipment as well.

In addition to the $74.04 on supplies, the average family expects to spend $291 on clothing and shoes and $86.03 on computers and software.

There is obviously a pot of gold there, and retailers are scheming to get as much of it as they can.

Staples office supplies stores offers an Internet service that gives teachers and districts an opportunity to put their lists of required supplies on its Web sites. Parents can find the lists by using the school’s zip codes.

If the school isn’t listed, Staples provides standard lists by grade.

Target offers a full line, but concentrates mostly on clothing, including school uniforms.

Wal-Mart emphasizes electronics at its Student Central Web site, but also offers a full line of supplies and clothing.

Some local parent-teacher associations sell back-to-school kits as a service to parents and for fundraising.

A new service at getyourschoolsupplies.com in Frisco, Texas, sells supply kits ranging from $21 to $35 and promises home delivery within 48 hours.

The fledgling firm advertises that, “We ship the kits for free direct to your door in a handy cardboard suitcase with a built-in plastic handle to make the trip back to school that much easier.”

But most families — 78 percent of those queried — will shop at discount stores. Department stores will account for 49 percent, office supply stores 31 percent, specialty stores 20 percent and drug stores 16 percent.

The percentages add up to more than 100 percent because many families plan to shop at more than one store.

The federation credits much of the increase to the $13 billion in checks that are being sent to more than 25 million families.

“The refund checks could not have come at a better time,” Mullin said. “The child tax credit will go far in assisting families with necessary back-to-school purchases and will help retailers build on the past two months of sales growth.”

Another positive factor are sales tax holidays in nine states. During the holidays shippers can buy clothes, shoes and other selected items without paying state or local sales taxes.

The holidays usually come in August and are offered in Texas, New York, Connecticut, South Carolina, Iowa, West Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Vermont.

In some families, the students themselves are major contributors. About 44 percent of parents of teens said the youngsters will spend an average of $62.71 and 26 percent said 12 year olds will spend $32.63.

“The back-to-school season is a family affair,” said Phil Rist, vice president of BIGresearch. “Not only do children have a huge influence over what their parents buy, they are also more than willing to set aside their own money for what they want to have when they return to the classroom.”

BIGresearch polled 8,835 consumers from July 2-9. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percent.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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