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Early Signs Point to a Big Back-to-School Season for Retailers

Kids may not actually be this excited to go back to school. Image source: Getty Images.

Two new surveys commissioned by RetailMeNot, Inc. (NASDAQ: SALE) show that parents plan to spend more money on back-to-school shopping than they did last year.

That's good news for retailers, but the competition for those increased dollars will be intense as the research conducted on behalf of the coupon site shows that more than half of shoppers look for deals and promotions when shopping for back-to-school items. In addition, the surveys make it clear that consumers favor straight discounts over gimmicks as percent off the total purchase proved to be the most popular promotion.

The results of the two separate surveys forecast that overall spending will increase to roughly $273 per child, up from the anticipated $246 in 2015.

What exactly was surveyed?

RetailMeNot commissioned two surveys. The first was a Google Consumer Survey conducted between June 8 and 10 involving 1,011 consumers in the United States who indicated they had school-age children under 18 or children in college over 18 that they would be spending money on related to back-to-school expenses.

The second, performed by Kelton Global between June 10 and 16 used an email invitation to survey 1,007 "nationally representative Americans ages 18 and over," according to RetailMeNot, which noted that "quotas are set to ensure reliable and accurate representation of the entire U.S. population ages 18 and over."

What did the surveys say?

For the big three in U.S. retail -- Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT), and Target (NYSE: TGT) -- the surveys (RetailMeNot does not explain which findings come from each one) suggest the possibility of a big season, while leaving the door open for clever promotions from smaller retailers.

For example, the RetailMeNot report shows that 86% of parents will do at least some back-to-school shopping, with average spending being higher, as noted above. But those consumers are not shopping willy-nilly and are instead being very careful with their money. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed said they "look for back-to-school deals regularly," while 33% said they always look for promotions. In addition 26% of shoppers said they "buy items as they go on sale."

The survey also revealed some positive news for Target, Wal-Mart, and other physical retailers. More than half of parents (56%) expect to shop mostly or completely in bricks-and-mortar stores while 32% will split their purchases between online and physical retailers, while only 9% plan to go fully digital.

What will parents be buying?

As you might expect, 78% of those surveyed who plan to make purchases expect to buy school supplies. That could help Wal-Mart, Target, and Amazon, but it does leave room for the office supply chains to lure customers in with discounting.

Clothing purchases come in a close second at 76% while textbooks were named by 38% of participants, tablets scored 26%, laptops came in at 21%, and smartphones were on the shopping list of 20% of those surveyed.

What does this mean for retailers?

Just because people plan to spend more does not mean they are not being very careful how they dole out their dollars.

"Budgets are set to increase in 2016 compared to last year's spend," according to the report. "However, despite this, more than 1 in 4 (28%) parents say they feel a financial burden during the back-to-school season."

That's going to lead to very informed customers looking for deals.

"Retailers can expect back-to-school shoppers to visit them in-store or online armed with more information than ever before due to the rise of smartphones and the shopper's ability to search for virtually anything in an instant," according to RetailMeNot. "More shoppers will be focused on smart spending throughout the season, rather than heading to the stores early." Only 24% said they complete all their shopping in one weekend.

Overall the report should bring retailers cautious optimism. People are buying and most are shopping over a protracted period. That could lead to more sales in other areas, which could help prop up margins driven down by intense price competition during the back-to-school period.

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Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. He does not want to go back to school and sometimes has nightmares that he has to. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon.com. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.