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Back-To-School Sales Expected to Drop, But Not So Much in Pittsburgh

Ready … set … shop!

While it doesn’t have have an official kickoff day like the Christmas shopping season does with Black Friday, retailers are trying to get parents and students to spend their back-to-school money a little earlier this year.

“We have what you could call a back-to-school creep,” said Audrey Guskey, associate professor of marketing at Duquesne University. “Usually families wouldn’t start to shop until about August, and they would shop early August through Labor Day weekend, and nowadays we’ve had the stores putting out sales as soon as the kids got off the school bus trying to get families back into the stores because they’re concerned about the economy. A lot of families, about half of them, started shopping in July already.”

The Christmas shopping season is by far the largest for retailers — about $580 billion in gross sales — back-to-school business is the second most important at $60 billion.

“It’s a huge, huge shopping season for retailers, and they know that,” Guskey said. “And they’re putting an all-out push for advertising and promotions to get us in the stores to spend as early as possible.”

Sixteen states have “sales tax holidays” during parts of August, mostly on back-to-school supplies, clothing and some on electronics such as computers, to encourage more buying.

“It does sort of give the best benefit to the retailers themselves and of course to the families who are able to spend a little bit more or save a little bit more for their families.”

Pennsylvania has not had a sales tax holiday for about five years. One reason: the state doesn't tax clothes.

According to the National Retail Federation, the average family with school-age children is expected to spend about $635, down from $689 last year.

“Last year was a stellar back-to-school shopping season. We have to keep that in mind,” Guskey said. “It was really historically very high and broke all records. So if this year is down from last year, that’s not to say it’s going to be a tough back to school shopping season, but it won’t be as strong as the previous year.”

Guskey said she expects Pittsburgh retailers to see a strong shopping season and not drop nearly as much as national projections. 

Her advice to families: Don’t shop too early.

“Even wait 'til the kids are back in school and buy some of the things," Guskey said. "You don’t know what specific supplies they may need or even what the cool outfits might be, and so if you spend your entire school budget before you hit the school buses, you may regret that and there may be a lot of things you may still need well after the kids are in school.”