Back-to-school sales start slow in hard economic times

Consumer confidence in the economy is at a two-year low, and back-to-school shoppers aren't ready to break their banks this year.

Consumers are expected to spend more than $68.8 billion on back-to-school and college merchandise this year, the National Retail Federation reported Thursday, based on its annual surveys. That's only slightly higher than last year's $67.2 billion

And that's not good news for retailers or the broader economy. It's another sign that high unemployment and energy prices are weakening consumers' appetite for spending. Retailers count on sales to increase each year, and will have to work harder to lure customers with deals and other efforts.

Back-to-school time is the biggest shopping season after Christmas.

Families of K-12 children will spend an average of $604, the NRF predicts. Families of college students will spend $809.

"The theme for families comes down to spending where you need to and saving where you can," said NRF CEO Matthew Shay, during a media conference call on Thursday.

Consumers are moving beyond making purchasing decisions solely based on price.

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