Back-to-school Sales Are Hard Lesson For Retailers

September 25, 1991|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff writer

Back-to-school sales failed to bring large numbers of shoppers back to Maryland stores again this year, as the recession threatens to keep hold for yet another season.

And while sales-tax statistics for August -- the kick-off month for what is usually retailers' first push for the busy fall and holiday seasons -- are still weeks away, the Maryland Retail Merchant's Association is predicting lackluster back-to-school results.

"A lot of retailers are probably going back to the drawing board after this," said Tom Saquella, president of the Annapolis-based association. "They saw a lot of pent-up demand among consumers, but this year's (August) will probably end up as another disappointment."

Despite the gloomy predictions for what usually ends up being a barometer of the heavy fall and holiday seasons to come in the next three months, Carroll retailers are saying sales went just fine -- if they're saying anything at all.

"We did quite well," said Liz Lawrence, manager of the Peeble's department store at Eldersburg's CarrolltowneMall. "I think, all in all, sales here were pretty good. I was satisfied."

The Carrolltowne branch of the 100-year-old Virginia retailer opened last November, so this is the store's first back-to-school venture.

Peeble's strategy was similar to that of other retailers -- offering fall clothing and school-related items at a discount.

A stalwart of Westminster's Main Street for more than a generation, Mather's apparently is weathering the tough retail climate so far thisseason.

"It's been pretty good," said Thelma Melown, buyer for the small department's store children's department. "It's about the same as last year.

"Now, for a number of years, we've been hurt by the discounters, but I really think we've been able to hold our own."

Melown has been with the store for 40 years.

At K mart on EnglarRoad -- one of the nation's most aggres

sive discounters -- it's hard to tell how back-to-school sales have been for the store.

"I'd say the sales went pretty well, but I don't have time to discuss this with you," said a manager who took a reporter's call.

Retailershave been among the hardest hit during the yearlong national recession.

And while, nationally, sales in the $640 billion industry wereup by about 0.5 percent in July -- marking the first upward quarter in more than a year -- Saquella said he expects Maryland's $36 billion retail industry to record a lousy August.

"August is really a barometer," Saquella said. "You have the new fall fashions, so it is a gauge for the all-important holiday season."

For Carroll's 601 retailers, a repeat of the last two Christmas-buying seasons is far fromunexpected.

Last December saw most major retailers resort to deepdiscounting -- selling merchandise for 20, 40, 60 or even 70 percentoff list price -- in an effort to maintain even flat sales.

"Lastyear's sales started tumbling in May," said Saquella of the retailers' association. "And they never came back.

"A lot of retailers were encouraged by this year's May, June and July. But it looks like they'll be disappointed after this August."

Retail establishments arethe county's largest source of employment, with more than 7,400 workers.

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