At the Target in Aberdeen, shoppers have begun swarming the aisles hunting for Spice Girls folders. At Cohen's Clothiers in Cockeysville, they're loading up on khaki pants. And at Hess Shoes in Towson, youngsters are slipping out of sandals and into athletic shoes and oxfords.
Long, lazy days of summer might as well be over: Retailers have kicked off the back-to-school selling season, second only to -- if not bigger than -- Christmas.
The duds are more casual, the season longer and the students more discriminating than in years past, but some things never change in the generations-old tradition of shopping for school.
Target brings in extra help and braces for crowds seeking pencils, notebooks and jeans. As he has for decades, Gil Cohen, owner of Cohen's, stocks up on the boys' and men's pants, shirts, shoes and coats that parents buy by the armload. And each year, Hess manager Ron Germack counts on his young customers to outgrow their shoes, though it can be tricky predicting the new styles that children, more often than parents, are choosing.
"Today, it's the children who are calling the shots," unlike a generation ago when "you got what they gave you," Germack said.
Even so, he said, back-to-school shopping is still an event.
"It's a family thing," he said. "But time is important, so they'll usually try to get it all out of the way at one time. The crunch usually comes the middle of August, though we're starting to get it now."
For Cohen, late July through September typically is the busiest time of year, surpassing Christmas and accounting for a quarter of his annual business.
"Back to school has lost some of the clout it had years ago, because there are so many stores and so many malls, so many that people have available," Cohen said. "But this is something we specialize in. In a lot of cases, what I'm hearing is, 'I'm here today; this is the day we decided to go shopping. We're going to get it all today.' "
This year, retailers expect a solid season, a continuation of a strong year in which retail was buoyed by high consumer confidence and a healthy economy.
"Most retailers are somewhat optimistic going into it," said Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association. "It's been a pretty good retail year. The figures should be above last year; the economy is performing well.
"The August-September period is a barometer for Christmas," he said. "If you have strong back-to-school sales, you will have a strong holiday season."
Consumers are expected to spend $408 per child this year, according to the American Express Retail Index, which is based on a national opinion survey of more than 1,300 consumers. That's up 3 percent from the $396 per child the survey called for last year.
In another measure, the Arlington, Va.,-based International Mass Retail Association said parents will spend an average $60 on paper, notebooks, folders, books and organizers; less than $100 on computer discs, software and calculators; and about $239 on apparel.
Most of the shoppers surveyed by the IMRA said they plan to head to the stores this month, with consumers almost equally divided between the first two weeks and the last two weeks of August. Only 15 percent said they had planned to shop in July, while 10 percent said they planned to shop in September.
Retailers say the shopping season now stretches over a longer period, with consumers starting to buy for the school season in late July, to take advantage of early promotions, or waiting until -- early October, when temperatures begin to cool.
Teens' changing shopping patterns have lengthened the season, said Denise Workcuff, a Target spokeswoman.
"The teen-age kids are buying from August to October, and the reason is peer pressure," Workcuff said. "They want to make sure they have what's cool, so they pick up a pair of jeans or khakis and a nice shirt and tennis shoes, then go to school and see what everyone else has. They tend to do that more and fill in gaps along the way."
Despite merchants' efforts to push the season earlier, consumers tend to shop closer to the time they need items, said Kenneth Gassman, a retail analyst with Richmond, Va.,-based Davenport & Co.
"September is a much more representative month for back to school," he said.
Teen market 'exploding'
Business should be especially strong this year for retailers catering to teen-agers, experts said.
"The teen market itself as a segment of the industry is exploding right now. Business is way up over last year," said Bruce VanKleeck, vice president of member services for the National Retail Federation.
"The teen market is more affluent," VanKleeck said. "Dual-income families are providing the child with an allowance and spending money, and teens are working part-time jobs. There is plenty of opportunity for part-time jobs, and the money they are earning and being given is being spent on clothing items."
The mass discounters also should fare well and see increased sales in August and September, Gassman said.
"Back to school is a commodity-driven business," Gassman said. "All you want for kids is decent-looking clothing that will last a long time that offers a good value. This is truly a season for the discounters."
Kim Bodenheimer, manager of the Aberdeen Target, hopes that's the case. In preparation for schools near the store opening the week before or the day after Labor Day, the store has stocked up on the regular back-to-school supplies and clothing.
But her store and other Targets in the state also hope to grab a share of the emerging back-to-college market with items such as inflatable chairs and ottomans, small televisions and videocassette recorders.
"Back to school and back to college are very important," Bodenheimer said. "We're getting ready to go into the last busy retail push."
Pub Date: 8/09/98