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For mall stores, back-to-school shopping can't come soon enough

Back-to-school shoppers plan to do most of their buying in physical stores, according to a survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics. (Special to The Forum)

The $84 billion back-to-school shopping season is back just in time as far as beleaguered mall merchants are concerned.

Consumer spending on kids and young adults returning to the classroom not only is the second-largest shopping period behind the winter holidays, but it's one when many conventional physical stores are holding their own against the surge of online competition. Although the growth of e-commerce has forced dozens of U.S. retail chains to close thousands of locations at malls and elsewhere, analysts said that children and their parents still like visiting stores to purchase items on their back-to-school lists—notebooks and lunch boxes and clothes and computers.

Back-to-school shoppers plan to do most of their buying in physical stores, according to a survey conducted for the National Retail Federation by Prosper Insights & Analytics.

Online shopping came in third, tied with clothing stores, when consumers were asked to name all the places they were planning to do their buying. Nearly 46 percent of those surveyed said they would do some online shopping, almost unchanged from a year ago but up about 10 percentage points from 2015, showing the strong growth of e-commerce. In a separate survey, the International Council of Shopping Centers trade group found "that 68 percent of shoppers said they don't envision buying all of their school supplies online," spokeswoman Stephanie Cegielski said.

"People still want to see and touch and interact with products," she said.

Retailers increasingly are making it easier for consumers to order products online and then have them delivered to their homes or pick them up at the store. The latter option often prompts shoppers to stroll elsewhere in the store to buy other merchandise or—in the case of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., for instance—pick up groceries as well.

For many youngsters and their parents, the store visits are as important as the convenience of e-commerce. It's one thing for kids to give their parents a holiday wish list and hope for the best, and quite another for kids to demand a select type of notebook, backpack or apparel after they've looked them over in person, analysts said.

"They're online a lot, don't get me wrong," NRF spokeswoman Ana Serafin Smith said. "But they're using online more to do research than to actually pull the trigger and buy." Back-to-school sales, including those for young adults returning to college, are expected to climb a stout 10.3 percent this year to $83.6 billion from $75.8 billion, the NRF estimates, citing stronger employment, higher consumer confidence about the economy and lower gasoline prices.