Class, today's lesson in back-to-school shopping is what grownups call a good news/bad news situation.

First, the goods news: Back-to-school spending is expected to increase over last year, according to the retail analyzer ShopperTrak. The bad news: Shoppers won't be coming to the store as much.

ShopperTrak predicted that business will pick up 3.8% this August over last, while foot traffic will retreat 2.9%.

It doesn't take an A student in math to determine that as long as the cash registers are ringing more, that's a good thing overall. But stores will still have to sweat the concept of moving more merchandise to fewer customers. ShopperTrak, which tallies the number of visitors to 25,000 stores nationwide, hedged a little on its figures: If Congress and the president can't solve the debt ceiling puzzle, Americans might become skittish about spending an extra few bucks on jeans and backpacks, ShopperTrak said.

"With back-to-school shoppers planning fewer trips to the store -- and continued economic uncertainty -- retailers must maximize the limited number of opportunities to convert browsers to buyers," said ShopperTrak co-founder Bill Martin.

As parents and kids begin stocking up on supplies for the upcoming semester, retailers will be looking ahead as far as Christmas. Back-to-school sales often act as a crystal ball for holiday retail trends, according to ShopperTrak.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves, class. Get those pencils and notebooks ready.

Thoughtful Shopping Ahead


Meanwhile, the National Retail Federation expects flat to modest retail sales growth for the season, said Matt Shay, president and chief executive officer of the association, during the NRF's back-to-school conference call today.

The season, the second biggest consumer spending period after the winter holidays, will account for nearly $70 billion in K-12 and college spending, according to the NRF's Back-to-School Survey, conducted by BIGresearch. Parents of kids in grades K-12 will spend an average of $603.63 on apparel, school supplies and electronics, a few dollars shy of last year's spending levels, while the back-to-college set will spend about $808.71, down from $835.73 in 2010, the survey found.

"We think that this year, the theme for families really comes down to spending where you need and saving where you can," Shay said.

The still-tepid economy and lackluster job picture will mean that shoppers will be making "smart but thoughtful purchasing decisions," he said. "Parents are really going to be thoughtful before they go shopping."

But they won't be penny pinching as hard as they were in 2009, at the height of the recession, "when people just went out and looked for the best price -- period," he told DailyFinance.

"That has moderated somewhat, and is reflected in the fact that department stores will have a better year this year than last year."

Shoppers' muted spending cadence is expected to continue into the holiday season, the NRF predicts. Holiday promotions, also known as "holiday creep," could kick off as early as post-Labor Day this year, and like the back-to-school season, smart phones and tablet computers "are the big must-have products," Ellen Davis, vice president of the NRF, said during the call.

DailyFinance reporter Barbara Thau contributed to this article.

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