Image: Back-to-school fashions
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Many consumers buy back-to-school clothes only because their children have worn out or outgrown clothing items, not because they are particularly enamored with this year's fashions, according to a survey.
By Allison Linn Senior writer
updated 8/9/2007 3:39:06 PM ET 2007-08-09T19:39:06

The hot sun is still beating down, but for most clothing retailers across the country it’s high time to start thinking about corduroy pants, cozy sweaters and school uniforms.

This year’s back-to-school shopping season is especially important for apparel sellers, some of whom have grappled with an up-and-down year amid weird weather patterns, rising gas prices and the occasional fashion miscue. Analysts are expecting clothing retailers to gain some, but not much, ground during August and September.

“It’s going to be a good season, not a stellar season,” said Marshal Cohen, industry analyst with NPD Group.

The International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group, is expecting overall back-to-school shopping, which includes clothing, shoes, computers and other items, to grow 5 percent from last year to $27 billion. The good news for clothing retailers is that a little more than half of that is expected to be spent on clothes.

“In recent years you’ve seen a definite shift toward more apparel spending,” said Michael Niemira, the group's chief economist.

Still, Niemira cautions that clothing retailers will still have challenges this season. For one thing, some retailers had an especially strong season last year, which could be difficult to match.

It’s also not clear that retailers have completely figured out which styles people want to buy. A separate survey of 1,000 households, commissioned by the shopping center trade group and Citigroup, found that many people will buy back-to-school clothes to replace clothing kids have worn out or outgrown, rather than because they are so enamored with this years’ fashions. The study also found that shoppers were likely to favors discounts and deals.

“It’s not a fashion-focused season, it’s a value-focused one,” Niemira said.

But others are more upbeat about the fashion offerings. Dana Telsey, retail analyst with the Telsey Advisory Group, thinks there is now enough variety in the mix to appeal to those who may have been turned off by some styles offered earlier this year.

“I think there’s wearable items for everyone,” she said.

Retailers, as expected, are pulling out all the stops to lure parents and their fickle children into their stores.

Some think the battle will be won on price. Discounter Wal-Mart Stores Inc. recently announced an aggressive program to offer savings on shorts, shirts, notebooks and other items. The move to focus on value comes after Wal-Mart’s high-profile attempt to offer more fashionable clothing flopped.

Other discounters are hoping to appeal more to teens' fashion sense. Wal-Mart rival Target Corp., which has found success by offering cheap chic styles, is pushing cargo shorts, denim and other items under its Mossimo brand.

Meanwhile, JCPenney is hoping to appeal to a teen’s sense of individuality by stressing that shoppers can mix and match to create their own unique look. Gap Inc., which has been struggling to find a niche with fickle shoppers, is stressing both trendy items and basics such as school uniforms.

The move toward a more varied fashion look is creating a challenge for chain stores like Gap, which succeeded in the 1990s by featuring virtually the same items in thousands of stores across the country.

Cohen, of NPD Group, expects Gap to continue struggling in the new climate. Telsey noted that the company isn’t using television advertising, which she sees as a sign it is placing less focus on back-to-school.

Destinie Danforth, 11, wears a uniform to school but still likes to have her own clothes for weekends and after school. She said she and her friends will look for fall clothes at stores including Target and Macy’s.

“The Gap,” she said,  “is the one that my mom buys me stuff at.”

Cohen expects stores to have the most success if they are able to offer a wide variety of styles and refresh those styles often, allowing people to create their own look. He thinks American Eagle Outfitters Inc. will do well for those reasons.

“We’ve seen the consumer really reach for a more eclectic taste of product,” Cohen said. “Not everybody wants to look like everybody else.”

Telsey also is expecting Abercrombie & Fitch Co. and Aeropostale Inc. to do well this back-to-school season. Hot Topic Inc. whose back-to-school offerings range from tight skinny jeans to baggy street pants, is among the retailers she expects to struggle.

That trend is definitely being echoed at Jane McGee’s house. McGee, a teacher, said her 17-year-old will only go into American Eagle, Abercrombie & Fitch or its sister brand Hollister. Increasingly, McGee’s 10-year-old also is favoring her big sister’s preferred brands.

Retailers also will be hoping to lure shoppers into their stores early, in the hope of capturing sales before they must begin steep discounting. Niemira said his trade group’s survey results show that slightly more shoppers will be out in August rather than September, but Cohen expects shoppers to wait until the last minute.

That could make retailers nervous and lead to more discounting, to the benefit of shoppers.

“It’s an excellent position for the consumer — the consumer’s in the driver’s seat,” Cohen said.

McGee expects to be among those last-minute shoppers. As a teacher, she said, she often dreads back-to-school shopping because it means she’ll be returning to work soon.

But she also doesn’t like to let her kids buy their full fall wardrobe until they see what other kids are wearing — and she can see whether her kids are having yet another growth spurt. That way, she can avoid wasting money on fashion misses or jeans that are too short by the time the bad weather hits.

“I tend to make my kids wait,” she said.

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