Retailers fear parents will be spending less on their children's school outfits because of higher fuel bills, and will recycle last year's clothes.

Back-to-school shopping looking lighter this year

August 19, 2005|By Rhasheema A. Sweeting | Rhasheema A. Sweeting,SUN STAFF

Lisa Francis spent about $300 a piece on her two school-age children this year - roughly the same amount as she did last year during the back-to-school shopping season.

"Because gas prices are so high, we have to try to save money," the Randallstown woman said yesterday, noting that her son and daughter will wear clothes from last year to help keep costs down.

Many families are expected to stick to the bare necessities this shopping season and spend less, retail experts say. The National Retail Federation estimates that families will spend $443.77 on back-to-school items this season compared with $483.28 a year ago, down almost 9 percent. Spending on back-to-school items is expected to total $13.39 billion this year.

Some retailers have expressed concern that many consumers won't have as much to spend during the coming months because of rising energy costs. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, said this week that second-quarter sales were hit by increasing gas prices and other operating costs. Wal-Mart has trimmed its earnings forecasts for the three months ending in September.

Another reason sales are expected to be slower this season is because there is no must-have item - last year the Apple iPod was the hot item, experts said.

"Without that hot item, there's not that same need to get back into the stores," said Jay McIntosh, director of retail and consumer products for Ernst & Young, which tallied the cost of back-to-school items.

This means retailers will have to try even harder to draw shoppers into their stores, in part by advertising and discounting more heavily, McIntosh said. J.C. Penney, for example, said it expanded advertising for the back-to-school shopping season.

But that advertising push may not be enough to encourage shoppers to increase their spending. More than 50 percent of families will use clothes from last year, according Britt Beemer, chairman and founder of America's Research Group, a South Carolina-based consumer marketing company.

"Parents are glad to be keeping their kids looking nicer and keeping with this look from last year," Beemer said.

Antoinette Johnson, of Holbrook in Baltimore County, bought $160 worth of clothes from Old Navy for her 12-year- old daughter yesterday. But she said her daughter will wear some of the same clothes from last year. "If she can still fit the clothes, then we'll recycle them."

That should be easy for parents and children alike as many of the styles are popular again this season. Staying with last year's fashion, jackets, camisoles and denim are the trendiest items this season, said Brenda Romero, public relations coordinator for J.C. Penney.

The look this season is a Bohemian-layered look, Romero said, adding that vintage screened T-shirts, vintage jackets and shrunken blazers also are popular this season.

Other items on the back-to-school shopping list this school year include graphing calculators, MP3 players and the iPack backpack, which has a compartment for a laptop and an iPod, according to Aimee Sands, spokeswoman for Target stores.

Though its estimates for the season are not as optimistic as last year's, the retail federation said merchants may find some surprises.

"Consumers have a way of spending more than they think," said Scott Krugman, spokesman for the Washington-based federation, which has tracked overall spending for the past three years.

That's one reason why some economists believe this shopping season may turn out better than expected.

Ken Mayland of Ohio-based ClearView Economics predicts this school-shopping season will be great because unemployment numbers are lower and job creation and wage growth also have increased, partly offsetting higher energy costs.

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