MEGAN ANDERSON was taking her back-to-school clothes shopping seriously.
She had saved her money, assembled some experts and was methodically making her way through the girls' department at Kids R Us in Towson one afternoon last week.
After about two hours of mixing, matching, trying on and even putting back, the 11-year-old from Red Lion, Pa., had chosen about six outfits that her mother -- one of the experts -- figured could be stretched to 12 with some creative mixing and coordination.
The brightly flowered leggings -- a single piece of clothing that encompasses two of this season's hottest looks -- could be worn with at least three different tops, said her mother. Her selection included dresses, skirts, leggings, pants, sweaters and blouses, some in muted colors such as moss green and a milk-chocolatey brown; others in brighter hues that are pervasive for fall.
"It's trendy but not faddish," said Megan's mother of what they had chosen.
"Megan is so excited, everything looks good to her," said the youngster's aunt, Joanne McConnell of White Hall, also an assisting expert. McConnell, a teacher, was advising her niece on what youngsters wear in public schools -- Megan has been wearing uniforms at a parochial school -- and helping coordinate outfits.
Megan and her advisers were not alone in their volume purchasing.
Susie Kolker was buying back-to-school and fall dress clothes for her three sons and a daughter, ages 4 1/2 to 10 1/2 . She was trying to "get it over with" in one outing, said the Pikesville mother, who had two shopping carts full of sweaters and sweatshirts and pants and. . . .
Retailers, catalog companies and consignment shops all say that the back-to-school season -- from Aug. 1 into September -- is extremely busy, second only to the Christmas holidays for some children's clothing merchants. At Kids R Us, back-to-school is the busiest season, President Mike Searles said, with Christmas running third behind Easter.
"Normally, the season's like a freight train. It starts off slow and picks up speed," said Jeffery Morrell, owner of Morrell's Infants and Children's Wear in Westview Mall.
Some families, like the Andersons and the Kolkers, do their shopping in volume, hoping their purchases will see them through to the New Year and perhaps even into spring. Others buy a little at a time, waiting for cooler days before spending money on fall clothes.
Morrell said many people are buying "less at a time" than they used to. Some of this, he said, is prompted by youngsters' unpredictable growth and much of it by the uncertain and unfavorable economy.
"They're buying less and later," said Morrell, who has operated the family store, opened by his father in 1943, since 1967.
"Back-to-school is always a good season for us," said Mary Lou Bilder of Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s catalog division. The firm's separate back-to-school book "is doing very well," she said, adding that many working parents prefer catalog shopping because they can do it any time and comparison shop in their homes.
"It's been many years since people would buy back-to-school wardrobes," Nancy Kastellini of Hecht's said, but families do tend to buy shoes, jeans and -- this year -- short skirts at this time of year.
Jean Speice of J.C. Penney Co. disagreed. "We're still seeing back-to-school wardrobing," especially among young children who outgrow almost everything from year to year. "People tend to stock up," said the business planning manager for Penney's in Baltimore and Washington.
How families buy school clothes for their children also seems to depend on who is doing the buying, where they are shopping, how old the children are and, of course, the weather.
Parents shopping for younger children who wear sizes 4 to 6X and 7 to 14 often buy several outfits at once, said Kastellini, vice president for creative advertising at Hecht's. With this, Speice agreed: "Mom won't bring them out three times," she said.
For older children, who often do their own shopping, the purchases are more sporadic and piecemeal. Teens tend to buy one piece or one outfit at a time to keep up with the ever-changing looks.
"Girls tend to shop more scattered than boys," Speice observed.
Parents who patronize consignment shops tend to be quantity buyers, said Rosa Whitehead, owner of Mothers Exchange in Parkville.
"Most people who are true consignment-shop buyers shop ahead. We're talking about planners. They set aside a certain amount of money," she said.
Last week her customers were buying jeans, sweat shirts and even winter coats. Some of her regulars come from as far away as West Virginia, intending to stock up for a season, said Whitehead, who has owned the Joppa Road shop for three years.
It's not unusual for her customers to spend $90 at once, she said, though the average sale is around $20.
With warm weather a back-to-school tradition in this area, parents can often stretch summer clothing through September. Whitehead said there is a still a big demand for short-sleeve shirts to wear early in the school year.
At Penney's, the "summer darks" are meant to meet the fashion needs of youngsters in hot classrooms. The colors -- mustard and cranberry, for instance -- say fall, but the short sleeves and lightweight fabrics hang on to summer, Speice said.
By October, people are buying "sweaters and heavier-weight shirts," Kastellini added.
At Marley Station Mall on Ritchie Highway, children's wear merchants are seeing another trend. Grandparents are bringing in children for fall outfitting, said Roni Septoff, the mall's marketing director.
Whether the grandparents are paying the bill or just doing the legwork for working parents, she wouldn't venture a guess.
Septoff added that "people are buying, but they're watching their prices."