Image: Wal-Mart shoppers
Danny Johnston  /  AP
Wal-Mart has cut the cost of some basic school supplies to a quarter each.
updated 7/30/2009 4:52:36 PM ET 2009-07-30T20:52:36

Retailers are geared up for back-to-school shopping. But getting recession-weary parents similarly stoked — now, that might be tricky.

Stores are doing more than ever to win business this back-to-school season — lengthening it; focusing on more T-shirts, lower-priced jeans and other basics; and promoting 50-cent boxes of pens and outright giveaways to get people in the door. The high hopes come as retailers work through one of the bleakest years in memory, beset by a steep consumer pullback amid the recession.

Families are expected to spend 8 percent less on back-to-school, including everything from new shoes to dorm room gear, the National Retail Federation forecasts. It expects total spending of $47.5 billion.

That's worrying news for a retail industry that's seen sales declines at stores open at least a year of about 4 percent or more in recent months, according to The International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs tally.

Rising unemployment and steep drops in housing prices and investments have many parents looking for cheaper alternatives to the mall.

"We are checking out the thrift shops and flea markets," said Diana Ennen, 51, who runs a publicity and marketing company in Margate, Fla. She is shopping for a college-age son and 15- and 12-year-old daughters. "In years past, I would have been embarrassed to say this, but not anymore."

"It's very much a back-to-basics season," said WSL Strategic Retail president Wendy Liebmann. "There's not going to be excessive spending going on, people are still very unsure about what their job situations are and trying to do more saving."

Alice Hendricks, 41, from Bethesda, Md., owner of a small technology company, said she will focus on practical clothes more than the latest fad for her 14-year-old boy and 9-year-old girl.

"I am going to buy more staples, things that aren't incredibly trendy or a little bit big and will last the whole year and maybe into the next year," she said. "I'm waiting for things to go on sale."

By now, retailers are well aware that trendy is a tough sell this year and price is key. That means more basics like T-shirts and low-priced jeans.

About 90 percent of the clothing and accessories in Wal-Mart's exclusive new line with teen star Miley Cyrus and BCBG designer Max Azria will sell for $12 or less. The Miley Cyrus & Max Azria collection will available in August.

Wal-Mart also is steeply discounting supplies: a 24-pack of Crayola crayons and a bottle of Elmer's glue are each 25 cents, for example.

Target Corp., likewise, is promoting a boxes of pens, pencil cases and book covers for 50 cents apiece.

Competitor Kmart is even turning to freebies to bring people in the door, offering a different giveaways such as colored pencils or a Sharpie pen when customers buy $15 of school supplies.

Stores are banking on a longer shopping season — most back to school merchandise was on store shelves by mid-July, similar to last year, but this year Labor Day falls one week later. And many will keep back-to-school products on shelves through September, particularly clothing retailers, rather clearing out items after Labor Day.

The longer span allows merchants to offer a "shallow and broad" assortment and rotate more new items into the store. That way customers can find new items each time they return to the store without burdening retailers with excess inventory. It also allows students time to wait to make sure they know the "cool" fashion trends before finishing back-to-school shopping, said Friedman, Billings, Ramsey analyst Adrienne Tennant.

That means clothing retailers may be biting their nails even in September.

"When you have a very fixed budget, you don't have a lot of flexibility to buy the wrong thing," Tennant said. "The second wave of post back-to-school shopping is actually becoming more and more important."

Whether the promotions and new lines will be enough to spur spending, though, remains to be seen.

"The consumer is willing to part with some money but its not going to be fancy free and footloose," said NPD Group analyst Marshal Cohen. "I can't tell you enough how important T-shirts are going to be. Also jeans, but its not about $300 jeans, but under $100 jeans. 'Thrifty' is new back-to-school trend."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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