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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Parents plan to spend less money on back-to-school gear for their children this year, according to a survey released on Tuesday, a worrisome sign for retailers heading into what should be their second busiest selling period of the year behind Christmas.
The average family with children in kindergarten through 12th grade is expected to spend $548.72 on back-to-school merchandise this year, down 7.7 percent from 2008, according to the National Retail Federation's 2009 back-to-school survey.
College students and their parents will spend an average of $618.12 this year, up 3 percent from last year, as they purchase costly electronics or dorm room decorations.
But with fewer people planning to attend college this fall, the NRF said total college spending is expected to decline 4 percent to $30.08 billion.
"The economy has clearly changed the spending habits of American families, which will likely create a difficult back-to-school season for retailers," said Tracy Mullin, President and CEO of NRF, in a statement.
"As people focus primarily on price, strong promotions and deep discounts will ultimately win over back-to-school shoppers this year."
Retailers have watched their sales sink this year as consumers avoid all but the most essential of purchases.
Last week, major U.S. retail chains reported a 4.9 percent drop in June sales at stores open at least a year, marking the tenth straight month of falling same-store sales, according to ThomsonReuters data.
To entice reticent shoppers to spend, retailers are now slashing prices and some, like Sears and J.C. Penney Co Inc, are hosting special "Christmas in July" sales.
While parents typically view purchases of new shoes, clothes or backpacks as necessities at the start of a school year, four out of five Americans said they have made some changes to back-to-school plans as a result of the economy, according to the survey.
More than 56 percent of back-to-school shoppers said they are hunting for sales more often; 49.6 percent said they plan to spend less overall; and 40 percent said they are planning to increase their use of coupons.
Discount stores will be the most popular destination for back-to-school shoppers, the data showed.
According to the survey, 48 percent of back-to-college buyers said the economy will cause them to spend less overall. More than 33 percent said they will make do with last year's school items, while 17.4 percent said they will share or borrow textbooks instead of buying new ones.
In addition, 12.8 percent of respondents said the economy will have an impact on where a college student lives, with many choosing to save money by living at home.
The surveys were conducted for NRF by BIGresearch. The poll of 8,367 consumers was conducted from June 30 through July 7. The consumer polls have a margin of error of plus or minus 1.0 percent.
Reporting by Nicole Maestri; Editing Bernard Orr