It's a holiday tradition. Shoppers bring their kids to the mall to get a picture on Santa's knee, then scour stores for gifts.
Southlands shopping center in Aurora took that model and adapted it to back-to-school shopping this year. From Aug. 6-12, the center filled a vacant space near its fire pit with a "back-to-school lounge."
Inside, stores like Best Buy, Barnes & Nobel and World Market hawked wares aimed at students while restaurants gave away snacks, and spas and salons provided complimentary parent pampering. No jolly man in a red suit, but there was a DJ and a video game console so kids could play "Fortnite."
"This was something unique and it gave people an excuse to come out and learn about the fashion trends, what's new in technology, what's new in reads," Southlands marketing director Joyce Rocha said. "It turns it into more of an experience rather than just 'come out and shop'."
Southlands store runners likely appreciated the extra effort. It may not carry the cultural significance of the holidays, but for many businesses back-to-school shopping can have just as big of an impact on their bottom lines, if not bigger.
The National Retail Federation projects back-to-school and back-to-college spending will reach a combined $82.8 billion in the U.S. this year. That's down from $83.6 billion last year. The average family with kids in elementary through high school is expected $684.79 in 2018, slightly under the $687.72 projection from last year.
Used clothing store My Best Friend's Closet had a booth in Southlands' lounge. Visitors were invited to dress up a mannequin in items selected from the company's Aurora store and post pictures to Instagram. The looks that got the most likes earned $50 gift cards each day, with the best overall look winning a $250 prize.
"Our busiest season is back-to-school," said Brandi Francis, a district lead with the retailer. "It's huge. It far outdoes Christmas or the holiday season."
The National Retail Federation, or NRF, compiled its estimates after surveying 7,320 consumers in late June and early July. Participating families had an average of two school-age kids, researchers said. The survey's margin of error is 1.2 percent.
Parents expected to spend the biggest chunk of their money on clothing, according to NRF results, shelling out an average of $236.90 per family. Electronics purchases are projected to be the second most expensive at $187.10 per family. Shoes come in third at $138.66, while supplies like backpacks, notebooks and pens will be the fourth most costly category at $122.13.
The slight decrease in overall spending this year can be attributed to a projected dip in electronics purchases.
"Items like laptops, tablets and smartphones are now an everyday part of household life and aren't necessarily a purchase parents save for the start of the school year, resulting in a slight decrease in spending for this category," NRF vice president for research Mark Mathews said in news release.
Aurora resident JoVaughn Ewing was planning to buy a calculator for his daughter this month but he expected that to be for back-to-school electronics in 2018. Still, between 12-year-old Anaya and 7-year-old JoVaughn Jr., Ewing said he and his wife will likely spend north of $650 by the time they cross everything off their back-to-school list.
"Just fresh supplies. Notebooks, journals...a new backpack for my son. His was kindergarten size. He needed more space," Ewing said as he and his kids browsed the Southlands lounge on Aug. 11. "We're pretty frugal at Christmas, but this is the big push right here. They'll use this stuff through the summer, and then we'll go back-to-school shopping again."
The National Retail Federation survey found back-to-college shoppers also are expected to spend a little less this year; $942 on average down from $970 last year. Still, total spending is projected to rise for a third year in a row to reach $55.3 billion. Electronics will lead the way for college kids at an average of $229.21 per shopper.
The International Council of Shopping Centers performed its own shopper survey this summer. It recorded responses of 1,000 consumers and did not differentiate between college and K-12 spending. It found the average consumer expected to spend $812 this year, up from $747 in 2017.
That group found 50 percent of shoppers plan to do at least some shopping at Amazon.com, while 88 percent said they would visit brick-and-mortar stores. That matches the National Retail Federation results, which found 55 percent of back-to-school and 49 percent of back-to-college shoppers plan to make purchases online this season.
Shoppers should be aware many retailers reserve some of their best deals for inside their stores, International Council of Shopping Centers spokeswoman Stephanie Cegielski said. That's because they know shoppers often make unplanned purchases once they're through the doors.
Back-to-school spending increases over the last decade reflect rising back-to-school costs, social services officials say, including increased demands on students to contribute to shared supplies such as tissues and dry-erase markers. Schools, districts, government agencies and charitable organizations across the state hold donation drives and fundraisers to help disadvantaged families each year.
Denver Public Schools, the largest district in the state with more than 92,000 students, has had a back-to-school resource list on its website since early August, officials said. More than 67 percent of DPS students qualified for free or reduced lunch in the 2017 fiscal year, officials said.
Denver Human Services held a family and child support resources fair Aug. 11 at which it gave away more than 750 backpacks full of supplies to kids in need, according to spokeswoman Amy Fidelis. The city has given backpacks to roughly 1,800 kids this year through various programs. More information about those efforts can be found at denvergov.org/humanservices .
"As the cost of school supplies has increased, we've in turn seen an increase in the number of parents in our community who need support securing supplies for their children and the children in their care," Fidelis said in an email.