As children across the nation head back to school, they will be wearing fewer new clothes and shoes and carrying fewer new accessories than many retailers had hoped they would.
At many stores, back-to-school sales have been disappointing, executives say, and retailers have been forced to cut prices to generate sales.
Retailing experts say weak spending bodes ill for the rest of the important fall and Christmas shopping season, which retailers rely on for the bulk of their profits.
Retailers will not release official sales figures for August until Thursday, but preliminary reports paint a gloomy picture for merchants.
"Back-to-school has not been great," Edward A. Brennan, chairman and chief executive of Sears, Roebuck & Co., said in a recent interview. "Back-to-school has been spotty."
Sandra Shaber, an economist with the Futures Group, a consulting firm in Washington, said, "A lot of hopes have been put on consumer spending, but it has been extremely erratic."
Several bright spots exist, notably at discounters like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and K mart Corp.
"We are extremely pleased with our sales," said Michele Miladinov, the head stationery buyer for Kmart in Troy, Mich. "We are well ahead of last year." Hot sellers include notebooks and organizers emblazoned with a fluorescent Mickey Mouse.
Back-to-school sales are considered an important barometer of consumers' mood before the critical Christmas selling season.
"I don't ever recall a bad back-to-school and a good Christmas," said Daniel D. Barry, a retail analyst with Kidder, Peabody & Co.
"Parents vest a lot of hope in their children in the fall," said Mark D. Rexroat, marketing manager of school supplies for Mead Corp. in Dayton, Ohio. "People are willing to spend more money on their children for back-to-school than they are even at Christmas."
Last week, Barry of Kidder, Peabody interviewed a number of large retailers and said they reported disappointing sales. Stores are either missing or barely achieving their August sales targets, he said. "There is no life to the numbers. It is really not as good as we had hoped for."
Merchants themselves echo such observations. Sears' children's apparel group barely made its conservative sales target for August, after a "good, but not great" Saturday, said Gary Ramsey, the manager of children's apparel for Sears.
"It makes me nervous" about how the rest of the year will turn out, Ramsey said, adding, "I can't see any real change in consumers' buying habits."