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If the experts are correct, the back-to-school shopping season, which finally shifted into high gear this month, could be somewhat disappointing for retailers hoping for a summer spending boost.
With some schools starting classes as early as next week, parents are finally ready to part with their dollars to purchase the typical assortment of clothing, shoes, school supplies, backpacks, lunch boxes, and electronics. But retail analysts warn that those purses and wallets won't be opening too wide this season.
"What I'm seeing is more and more parents who are going to delay what they're planning to buy until the last moment," said retail analyst Britt Beemer, head of America's Research Group.
Maggie Stein, manager of Schoolbelles, a Toledo store selling school uniforms and apparel, said thus far sales "have just been OK" with not much of an increase from last year. "We haven't been as busy as I would have thought," she said.
More shoppers seem to be waiting until the last minute to buy, and when they buy, purchases are limited or at the minimum, Ms. Stein added. However, the shopping season still has a few more weeks to go, so it could improve, she said.
Evelyn Robinson, owner of School Matters, another retailer of school uniforms, said she cannot decide if her sales are down because of the economy, or because she relocated her store this year from Westfield Franklin Park in Toledo to the Great Eastern Shopping Center in Northwood.
"I don't think a lot of people know yet just where I am. Things are slower than last year when they should be in full swing," she said.
Still, Ms. Robinson said she has noted that those who do come in to buy aren't purchasing large orders. "I think they're being cautious and just buying what's required and using stuff from last year," she said.
Jen Lawson of Toledo, whose daughter, Aubrey, 6, will start first grade later this month, is among those spending only what she has to this year.
Aubrey will get a new uniform for school, but Ms. Lawson is also looking at used uniforms to supplement her daughter's wardrobe.
"We cut back a little on shoes. We only did one pair this year," Mrs. Lawson said. "I think maybe we're also realizing she doesn't need four or five different shirts this year, that maybe she can make do with two or three."
Aubrey also will be getting a new bookbag, although not a top-of-the-line one like last year, Mrs. Lawson said. "I've been paying a little bit more attention to the spending this year," she added.
At School Matters, Ms. Robinson said it seems to her that more shoppers appear to be holding off on buying until the very last minute this year in order to get merchandise on sale or secure the best possible deal.
"Sometimes they'll wait until the first week of September to start shopping," Ms. Robinson said. "But everyone is having sales right now. The sales are out there. So I think they could just be searching around for the best possible deal and then they'll buy," she said.
According to a consumer survey conducted by the National Retail Federation, 84.8 percent of consumers said the economy is affecting their spending plans in some way. Specifically, more people (51.1 percent this year, compared with 50 percent last year) said they planned to shop at special sales more often. The survey found 11 percent planned to cut back on extracurricular activities, compared with 10.2 percent last year.
The retail federation predicted the average person will spend $688.62 on his or her children, up 14 percent from $603.63 last year. It also predicted total spending will hit $30.3 billion, compared with last year's $22.8 billion.
For July, the International Council of Shopping Centers reported that sales at U.S. stores open for at least a year rose 4.6 percent.
But Mr. Beemer said he doesn't think retailers will see any rise in sales revenues when the season is over. He predicted sales overall will be flat to down 4 percent this year compared with last.
"It's not very pretty out there. More people are concerned about job security than ever before. It's not that they're worried about losing their jobs, it's that they're worried about being cut from full time to part time or losing hours," he said.
"I think it's going to be a very tough retail season," he said. "Shoes will do very well because it's one thing that parents won't skimp on. They don't want their children to be without good shoes. But everything else will be down."
Tom Curavo, owner of the Stride Rite Bootery in Sylvania, said sales are about the same as last year, although in the last few days shopper traffic has increased.
"Most people are buying two pairs of shoes. They're getting a school shoe and a tennis shoe for their children," he said. "But they're still looking for deals."
Contact Jon Chavez at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6128.