PHOENIX—According to a new back-to-school spending survey from the National Retail Federation, families with children in grades K-12 plan to spend an average of $669.28 on clothes, shoes, supplies and electronics, up 5% from $634.78 last year, and families with a college student expect to spend $916.48 on dorm trappings, school supplies and electronics. That’s up 10% from a year ago. Overall, back-to-school spending is forecast to reach $74.9 billion, up from $72.5 billion last year. 

David Birdsall, president, Total Retail Solutions, a division of Phillips Edison & Company, calls the back-to-school retail season one of the seminal retail events of the year—second only to Christmas.

“It’s a planned event, like Christmas,” Cincinnati-based Birdsall tells “It is in fact the gateway to Christmas as far as driving traffic. Back-to-school spending is a great indicator of how the gift giving season will play out.”

Back-to-school spending covers a broad base of categories: from fashion, to phones, to pencils.

“Rather than being a niche,” says Birdsall, “it affects a very broad spectrum of the population—we’re not just talking about Nordstom here. It’s Saks Fifth Avenue, to Walmart and Target. Walmart and Target are obviously more commodity-based. What we’re really focusing on here are the basics, versus the gift-giving holiday, which is very specific. Back-to-school is a time for renewal—hard goods to soft goods. Consumers will be restocking the basics like jeans and sneakers, but there is also this seeking out a fresh start for the school year—a new backpack, calculator, laptop, all manner of school supplies, maybe even a new phone. It’s like a renewal of self. People think they need something new for school.”

How does e-commerce factor in?

“E-commerce does not have as big of an impact on the back-to-school season as it does around the holiday gift giving season when consumers are wanting their two-day delivery and very specific goods. For back-to-school, you can meet a lot of your needs at a Walmart or a Target, for example, and get those pencils, that backpack and those other items all at one time and in one place. It’s just as easy to go grab it all at one place as it is to do it online in this case,” Birdsall says.

Birdsall says he’s interested to see the numbers come in this year.

“People underestimate how important it is. It’s going to be a very good indicator of our Christmas season.”