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Back-to-school shopping is off to a slow start as some districts plan later school openings this year and consumers wait for August sales tax holidays before buying clothes, school supplies, and other products, retail analysts said.

But analysts still expect retailers to enjoy solid back-to-school sales, which are second only to the winter holiday season. The International Council of Shopping Centers estimates that consumers nationally will spend more than $42 billion, up 3 percent from last year, during the back-to-school season, which runs from July to September.

Spending, however, will grow more slowly than in recent years as families reuse supplies and wait before upgrading computers and other electronics, analysts said. Back-to-school spending rose nearly 4 percent in each of the previous two years and jumped more than 5 percent in 2010.


“Overall spending will be more tepid this season than the last few years,” said Michael P. Niemira, the council’s chief economist. “But it doesn’t imply that the back-to-school season will be bad.”

In Massachusetts, Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said he expects these sales to begin to pick up this weekend, when the state permits two days of sales-tax free shopping.

The weekend, he said, “will usher in early traffic for back to school and create some momentum for the rest of the month.”

Jerry Michelson, manager of Michelson’s Shoes in Lexington, said later school openings may be leading people to delay purchases. After pre-Labor Day openings in recent years, some districts are waiting until after that holiday this year, he said.

“For us the school start date dictates how the business goes,” Michelson said. “People are starting to poke a little bit now.”

Marshal Cohen, chief retail industry analyst with NPD Group, a market research firm in New York, said the slow start reflects broader changes in consumer behavior. At one time, he said, families might buy a school year’s worth of clothes and supplies in one trip.


Now, with the last recession still fresh in their memories, they’re more frugal, spreading out their purchases.

“They’re taking advantage of the sales and buying based on needs, not based on desire,” he said. “The consumer is just being much more choosy and calculated.’’

Back-to-school sales trail only the winter holiday season for retailers.  This year, sales of apparel are expected to be strong and those of electronic gadgets could lag.
Back-to-school sales trail only the winter holiday season for retailers. This year, sales of apparel are expected to be strong and those of electronic gadgets could lag. Debee Tlumacki for the The Boston Globe

For retailers, July sales provided a hopeful sign that consumers may be willing to spend on deals. With shoppers scooping up summer clearance items, July sales at a dozen big national chain retailers jumped more than 4 percent from a year ago, making it the second-best month of 2013, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

“Even with all the angst that the consumer might be holding back, it was a pretty good month,” said Niemira, the council’s chief economist.

Apparel will be the biggest draw for shoppers this season, Niemira said. In contrast to last summer, a lack of new gadgets is expected to slow electronic sales.

Tom Heartt, manager of Willow Books & Café in Acton, said back-to-school sales drive his business in August, as students try to catch up on assigned summer reading.

The book store offers students discounted prices on some novels on summer reading lists.

“A lot of them come in June to stock up,” he said. “Then we wait until the procrastinators come in August. A lot are just still out having fun, which they are allowed to.”


Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @taryn.luna.