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Back-to-school shoppers in no hurry

While this year's back-to-school season is likely to be better for than last year's dismal retail season, many recession-scarred consumers are holding out, waiting for the best deals.
Image: Irea Sotero shops
The National Retail Federation predicted that nearly a quarter of back-to-school shoppers wouldn’t start making purchases until one to two weeks before classes begin. Getty Images

With the first day of school fast approaching, many retailers are hoping to lure back-to-school shoppers — and boost revenue — with deep discounts and bargains.

Recession-scarred shoppers, on the other hand, are taking their time to compare prices and holding out to see whether they’ll be rewarded with even bigger bargains if they wait.

“The consumer is not in any rush,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with NPD Group.

Retailers from Abercrombie & Fitch to Wal-Mart are offering deals aimed at students and their parents, hoping to improve on last year's dismal results.

Wal-Mart’s website is offering free shipping on items such such as furniture and electronics for college students, as well as school uniforms for the younger set. has a special shipping offer specifically for college students, plus bargains on student-oriented items such as printers, microwaves, coffee makers and textbooks.

But despite tempting offers, Cohen said many shoppers are watching and waiting, and some might even put off their traditional back-to-school spending until well into the school year, when the weather gets colder and kids have a better idea of what’s in style at their school.

The latest evidence that shoppers are holding out came Tuesday from retailing behemoth Wal-Mart, which said in an earnings call that more families are doing their back-to-school shopping closer to school’s start.

The National Retail Federation, a trade group, predicted that nearly a quarter of back-to-school and back-to-college shoppers wouldn’t start making purchases until one to two weeks before classes begin.

But it’s not all bad news for retailers. After two years of pinching pennies because of the weak economy and high unemployment rate, some families are finding that they can no longer put off making purchases such as a new computer or pair of shoes.

The retailing group projects American families will spend more on school supplies and clothes this year than last year: $606.40, up nearly 11 percent from $548.72 in 2009. Back-to-college spending will remain about the same at $616.13.

“After a while you do need to go out and buy things that still fit your kids,” said Ted Vaughan, a partner in the retail and consumer products practice with professional services firm BDO.

Vaughan said he is seeing a mixed picture among retailers, with shops such as Urban Outfitters seeing success without significant discounting and others, such as Abercrombie & Fitch, needing deep discounts to get customers in the door.

In general, he expects many youth-oriented apparel retailers will see an improvement over last year, if only because last year was so weak. He also expects retailers who sell electronics to see a boost from the fact that ever-younger students are relying on computers for school work. He also expects that sales tax holidays offered in some states will help boost spending.

Florida, for example, just offered a tax-free weekend that applied to some books, clothing, footwear and school supplies. In Connecticut clothing and shoe sales under $300 are tax-free all this week.

For many retailers, denim is a perennial draw and a way to get young shoppers in the door.  Abercrombie & Fitch is offering jeans at 40 percent off, Aeropostale is offering a “buy one, get one free" deal on jeans, while American Eagle Outfitters has all jeans on sale plus free shipping. Forever 21 will give shoppers a free cami with purchase of any denim.

Other retailers are rewarding customers who have held out for bargains with free-shipping offers and other deals.

Target is offering free shipping with a $50 purchase and is promoting deals on things like dorm room refrigerators and school uniforms.

Even Walgreen’s has deals on everything from crayons to children’s vitamins.