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Published: Sunday, 8/2/2009

Readin', writin', recession: Toledo area stores cut prices in key season to lure shoppers


IT WAS A chance meeting a glimpse caught across a crowded room but Leila Torres was determined to take advantage.

Within minutes, her 10-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter were stuffing a shopping cart with notebooks for a nickel, pencils for a penny each, and glue and tape and backpacks and any other back-to-school item they could find that was on sale at the Rossford Meijer store.

We tried to do our back-to-school shopping before at the last minute, and it costs a lot more, said Ms. Torres.

It s more important now, because I just got laid off from Tri-State Expediting, so we re really watching what we buy and what we need.

Across the nation, as summer vacation reaches its zenith for those still in school or college, their parents many of whom have lost their jobs in a deepening recession are beginning to assemble the required supplies for a new school year.

Retailers are offering early-bird shoppers steep discounts on staples such as crayons. Retailers are offering early-bird shoppers steep discounts on staples such as crayons.
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And according to annual surveys of back-to-school trends, the nation s worsening jobless rates have cracked the Crayola box to color nearly every consumer spending decision in what is the retail industry s second-largest sales season of the year.

The National Retail Federation s survey found the average family with students in grades kindergarten through 12 is expected to spend $549 on school merchandise, a decline of 8 percent from $594 in 2008.

Total spending on back to school is expected to reach $17.4 billion.

The survey, conducted by BIGre-search, found that 85 percent of respondents are changing their back-to-school rituals this summer as a result of the economy.

Nearly half reported that they planned to cut their spending, and two out of every five said they planned to move away from pricier name brands to less costly alternatives or to increase their use of coupons.

Retail analysts say they are seeing signs of dramatic pricing pressure and evolving consumer shopping trends that are likely to put the pinch on retailers during the shopping season that lags only Christmas in importance.

Toledoan Fay Bovee stocks up on notebooks priced at a nickel as she shops for school supplies for her grandchildren. Toledoan Fay Bovee stocks up on notebooks priced at a nickel as she shops for school supplies for her grandchildren.
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I think retailers are going to be absolutely shocked over Labor Day weekend when they realize how bad August sales have been, said C. Britt Beamer, chairman of America s Research Group in Charleston, S.C.

He predicts sales during the annual back-to-school season will be off between 8.5 and 12 percent in 2009. There s a train wreck going on out there in retail, and nobody wants to see it.

Large national and regional retailers such as Meijer Inc., Target Corp., and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. are concentrating their back-to-school efforts this season on small, core items notebooks, pencils, glue and pricing them below a quarter, in many cases, to lure back-to-school shoppers.

Going into this year, we made a decision to be more aggressive and bring prices down even lower than we normally would, said Frank Guglielmi, a spokesman for Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Meijer.

We ve seen a trend over the last year that consumers have gotten very strategic in the way they shop. They re hunting for bargains, and they re starting a lot earlier.

Indeed, many stores have had back-to-school displays out since mid-July. Most public and private schools in Ohio will return to the classroom this month, and students in Michigan return the day after Labor Day.

Parents who haven t yet begun their back-to-school shopping or who aren t willing to bargain-hunt may be surprised at the costs of nondiscounted items.

Columbus-based Huntington National Bank conducts an annual survey of the cost of outfitting students in elementary, junior high, and high school with their typical requirements for the year, including such items as school extracurricular fees and instrument rental for band.

This year, the bank found the cost for young students rose 34 percent over last year, costs for those in high school rose 11 percent, and costs for those in junior high remained relatively flat.

A big portion of the increase for elementary students was the rental fee for musical instruments, which rose from $228 to $299, along with a bump-up in additional field trip and school fees as school districts struggle to balance their budgets.

Fees for activities, textbooks, and tests also accounted for a large portion of the increase for high school students, a spokesman said.

Besides pencils and notebooks, parents are busy hunting for clothing and school uniforms, laptop computers and lunch boxes. Some local retailers are trying to capitalize on shoppers who may not want to spend hours running around town chasing down sales.

We try to have everything that s on their list, from the school uniforms to the pens and pencils and paper, all in one place, said Mark Hetrick, assistant store manager at The Andersons general store on Talmadge Road.

Still, Mr. Hetrick said, shoppers will grab a deal where they can find it.

I think we re going to see as much bargain-hunting in back-to-school as we have in every other area this year, he said.

That s the case this year for Toledoan Jeanette Keller, who was shopping last week for school supplies for her two children, who are going into fourth and fifth grade.

With her husband laid off from his job as a welder, Mrs. Keller said she s had to explain to her children the family s new economic realities.

They re understanding that Mom and Dad won t be [paying] as much as we might normally for something, but they seem to be OK with it, Mrs. Keller said. You have to find a bargain wherever you can find a bargain.

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at:lvellequette@theblade.com or 419-724-6091.

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