Back-to-school shopping is off to sluggish start

Thrifty consumers scouting for deals


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The hefty binder stuffed with carefully organized coupons that sat atop Laura Elliott's shopping cart at the South Hills Village Target -- in addition to the smartphone tapped into ecoupons -- showed she has prepped for the annual test involved in getting three daughters ready for a new school year.

"We try to concentrate on the clearance and the sales," the Canonsburg mother said earlier this week, and that generally means waiting to buy things like jeans that they won't wear until fall. "We'll just watch the ads."

A few aisles away, Niki Conaway had a similar attitude, even if her shopping style is less about tracking sales and more about resolving needs as they pop up. "We usually do the clothing when the weather cools," said the Mt. Lebanon mom trailing two daughters and a son.

Huntington Bank distribute backpacks to area kid

More than 200 area students receives backpacks and other school supplies from Huntington Bank. (Video by Nate Guidry; 8/08/2013)

Final grades on this year's back-to-school season, generally considered the second-biggest shopping session of the year behind the end-of-year holidays, won't be out for a few months but the early signs are mixed.

Sales at chain stores that report monthly results rose 4.2 percent in July over the same period last year, according to the New York-based International Council of Shopping Centers, which compiles results from a dozen major retailers.

That calculation does not include chains that don't share such results anymore, including teen clothing retailers American Eagle Outfitters, Abercrombie & Fitch and Aeropostale.

But earlier this week, South Side-based American Eagle slashed its second quarter earnings projections and warned that a heavily promotional environment at the mall forced more markdowns in July. Later in the week, Cranberry teen clothing retailer rue21 said it, too, spent the month running sales to clear out merchandise. On Thursday morning, Aeropostale reported second quarter sales in stores open at least a year fell 15 percent compared to a year ago.

"The question arises: Are we in the midst of a spending slowdown or are consumers holding off and shopping closer to need? Or both?" wrote Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics Inc., in Swampscott, Mass., in his review of the monthly sales results.

If retailers find it challenging to figure out when to put the fresh goods in stores and when to run promotions, consumers have their frustrations, as well.

Ms. Conaway said her family usually goes shopping for supplies the weekend before the kids start school -- this year they'll go back after Labor Day -- and then finds things sold out. This year, they decided to get out early only to discover some items weren't in the stores yet.

Tracking the nation's shopping maneuvers from a different perspective, Experian Marketing Services found that online searches for school supplies such as paper, calculators and backpacks started picking up in mid-July and probably peaked last week. Apparel searches start about now and may peak in the next week or so, said Bill Tancer, general manager of global research for the company that looks at data from search engines that track millions of searches weekly.

Fully half of the top 10 back-to-school-related searches this year include price qualifiers such as the words "coupon" or "sale," compared to just two last year, said Mr. Tancer, who works out of San Francisco. "There is some price sensitivity," he said.

Retailers at South Hills Village are all over that issue, touting discounts and deals to tempt passersby. The Children's Place promised basic denim for $10, the Gap's jeans were part of a buy-one-get-one-50-percent-off offer and Hollister's beach shack exterior included a discreet sign promoting all blue jeans at $20 up as Daft Punk's hit "Get Lucky" set the mood.

Signs advertising jeans also were at American Eagle, Aeropostale, Express and Abercrombie, which could mean that Ms. Elliott might not need to wait until later in the season to find denim deals. Justice -- which was listed on the handwritten shopping list being waved around by her 8-year-old Catie -- was promising 40 percent off in the entire store. (Jessica, 16, and Emily, 6, had different preferences.)

The shopping center council acknowledged a slow start to the season but said it's nothing to worry about.

"Our survey suggests that the majority of consumers will begin their back-to-school shopping in August, which bodes well for a continuation of the current sales pace that we have seen over the previous two months," said Michael P. Niemira, vice president of research and chief economist for the International Council of Shopping Centers, in his written analysis.

In August, the retail group is predicting sales will increase 4.5 percent to 5 percent.

Last month, the National Retail Federation projected that spending would be down for the overall season, as compared to last year. In part, that's because last year captured a burst of pent-up demand after families had been putting off purchases as long as possible, according to the Washington, D.C.-based trade group.

Meanwhile, Ms. Elliott is already working to parlay her savings -- from back-to-school shopping, as well as just general purchases -- into holiday spending money. She's built up a stack of the $5 gift cards that Target offers for certain bulk purchase, almost $100 so far.

education - neigh_city - businessnews - fashion

Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018. First Published August 9, 2013 4:00 AM


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