Store homework: Know what's `in'

Shopping: Families are buying clothes and supplies earlier, with more of the choosing done by the kids.

Back-to-school Spending

August 10, 2004|By Sara K. Clarke | Sara K. Clarke,SUN STAFF

Carolyn Hutton watches as a sales clerk packs a large cardboard box with new school clothes and secures two backpacks still wrapped in plastic to the top.

After spending $278.20, Hutton is finished with her back-to-school buying - she has uniforms, socks, underwear, tights and more. And Hutton's two daughters are equipped to return to Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School, where pupils must wear school uniforms

"Every year I come early and I'm done," Hutton said at the cash register of Jerry's School Uniforms in Baltimore. "I like to beat the crowd."

Crowds there will be.

"Basically, back-to-school is the second-biggest shopping period next to the winter holidays," said Scott Krugman, National Retail Federation spokesman.

This year, parents and students can expect to spend 7.2 percent more for back-to-school essentials, according to a survey by the National Retail Association. The average family will spend more on everything from shoes to electronics but slightly less on essentials such as pencils, notebooks and backpacks.

Total back-to-school spending is expected to average $483.28 a family, up from $450.76 in 2003, according to the survey.

Merchants are increasingly targeting students rather than their parents during the back-to-school season, experts said, because youths are spending more of their own money.

This year, students are looking for splashes of lavender, stretchable fabric book covers called Book Sox, anything denim and mobile technology, among other favorites, experts said.

Local retailers said the back-to-school shopping season starts earlier every year, typically beginning in earnest after the Fourth of July. How much consumers spend is watched closely as an early indicator of coming holiday sales.

High energy prices, the lack of a new fashion trend and the threat of terrorist attacks on targets such as malls might curb back-to-school spending this year, said Mark Millman, president and founder of Millman Search Group Inc., an Owings Mills nationwide retail consulting and search firm.

Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Consulting Group in New Jersey, expects stores to offer more sales earlier, especially for electronics.

"Consumer electronics, like toys, depend very heavily on must-have items," said Barnard, who noted a lack of new gadgets to get buyers excited.

Retailers won't succeed just by cutting prices, said Cheryl Bridges, associate director of the Center for Retail Studies at Texas A&M University.

"Even if an item's on sale, it's going to have to be what's `in,'" said Bridges, noting that merchants who are eyeing the younger market will need to offer the most popular trends.

Shoppers might spend later than usual this year, Bridges said, because of tax-free shopping days in some states and teens who are waiting to see what their peers are buying. Maryland does not have tax-free shopping days, but purchases of $100 or less will be tax-free in Washington until Sunday.

Informal surveys show teenagers are shopping in groups to make sure their clique is on the same back-to-school wavelength, Bridges said.

The majority of the spending growth will come from the teens and "tweens" (ages 8 to 12), Millman predicted.

Teenagers who use their own money for back-to-school goods are expected to spend an average of $84.58, according to the survey. More than 23 percent of parents said their children ages 6 to 12 will spend their own money, averaging $40.48 each.

"Stores understand parents don't make these decisions alone in a vacuum, and that in many cases, kids have their own money to spend," Krugman said.

Middle and high school students David Jackson, Luther Jessup and Jai Cromwell are prime examples. The three cousins will split $200 - a gift from their uncle - on school clothes. While shopping in Baltimore recently, the three said in unison that their biggest expense this season is for "shoes and pants."

According to the National Retail Federation, 40 percent of consumers are shopping for back-to-school items, nearly 35 percent will shop one to two weeks before school starts, and about 15 percent were buying a month ago. Others plan to shop the week school starts or later.

Anne Strock, who was picking up a binder at Staples in Towson recently, buys most of her school supplies directly from her daughter Natalie's school. A resident of Stoneleigh, she plans to wait until the weather changes in the fall to buy apparel.

"Gone are the days of buying back-to-school clothes," Strock said. "When they go back, it's still summer."

Promotions such as the 5 percent back offered at Office Depot and teacher appreciation days at Staples lure shoppers, while charity programs offer donated backpacks and supplies.

From twistable and erasable Crayola crayons to purple Elmer's glue, school supplies will be cool enough for the kids but vaguely familiar to parents.

"We're seeing a lot of updates to classic supplies," said Sharyn Frankel, spokeswoman for Staples.

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