Back-to-school shopping now has a second wave

The outdated, back-to-school shopping calendar is based on a faulty financial model, not shopper behavior, says Candace Corlett, principal at WSL Strategic Retail.

"It's plain wrong," she says. "It's not what shoppers are doing."

What they are doing is keeping spending power in reserve until they get the lay of the land, Cohen says. "It's all about fear. Kids who (spend all their money for clothes) in July or August know they won't be able to go back out after school starts and buy the cool stuff."

Stuck with fashion 'don'ts'

Lindsey Bergholz knows the consequences all too well.

Last year, she bought a bunch of long-sleeved shirts before school started only to discover — to her horror — that the kids at her school mostly were wearing short-sleeve shirts with "hoodies" (a hooded, zippered sweatshirt) over them.

"I had like 100 long-sleeved shirts that I didn't know what to do with," she says.

To avoid such a fashion disaster, Katherine Beaton, 14, of Westlake, Ohio, did only 15% of her back-to-school clothes shopping by early this month. Ditto for many of her friends at Westlake High.

Her key reason: "You don't want to go to school and look dorky."

When school started, she'd purchased only a couple of pairs of jeans, a few blouses and a skirt. Beaton says she's still a week or two away from doing her "serious" back-to-school shopping.

Getting the fashion right is serious business in Katherine's family; her sister, Lindsey Hahn, was named the high school's "best dressed" student in 2001.

Their mother, Jenny Beaton, says, "It's crazy for retailers to push back-to-school shopping during the summer. They need to back off."

Some students want it both ways. Alexandria Mitchell, a 12-year-old, seventh-grader at Durham School of the Arts in Durham, N.C., did most of her shopping before school began. But, she adds, "I go shopping every weekend and get one or two things."

Redefining 'back-to-school'

Executives at Maurices noticed the extension of the back-to-school shopping season and began reacting three years ago.

"It's changed the way we define back to school," says Lisa Rhodes, chief merchandiser for Maurices, which has 600 stores in 42 states. "We look at it as a longer selling period instead of short and sweet."

The chain now keeps back-to-school merchandise on its sales floors into October.

That has changed how it stocks clothing in July and August. It carries a bit less back-to-school apparel in the summer but adds new items more often, Rhodes says. "We used to say, 'If we build it, they will come.' Now, we don't build it quite as high."

The chain also has added a new fall catalog that is mailed to more than a million customers in September. With this mailer, says Vivian Behrens, marketing chief at Dress Barn dbrn, which owns Maurices, "We show that we're not walking away from back-to-school, but are augmenting it."

Clearance sales moved back

Not so long ago Roxy, a chain of about 100 girls clothing stores owned by Quiksilver zqk, started clearance sales right after Labor Day for remaining back-to-school clothing. No more, says Gregg Solomon, senior vice president of retail for Quiksilver. "We're not having sales as early as we used to, that's for sure."

For Labor Day weekend and the first week of September, percentage increases for sales at Roxy's company-owned stores were up "in the strong single digits," compared with the same period last year, Solomon says.

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