Jenny Schwarz's shopping cart was loaded — a plug-in cooler, new cushions for her outdoor furniture, toys for the backyard pool. All things good to have for a "staycation."
That's what you call a vacation spent at or near home, and with gas prices still climbing in a belt-tightening economy, the Schwarzes are among the many Americans expecting to be in their backyards a lot this summer.
It's the normal time of year for stores to be pushing vacation-time cookouts, camping and games, but with shoppers cautious about spending, stores are promoting low-cost activities even more than usual. Retailers are also seeing more interest in small ways customers can make their houses nicer places to spend the season.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest retailer, has launched an "American Summer" campaign, featuring tents, grills, coolers, wicker furniture sets and inflatable pools, saying a summer getaway is "as close as your own backyard." Rivals Target Corp., touting "fun under the sun" in its circular, and Kohl's Corp., with a "sale into summer" promotion were among other retailers cutting prices on swimwear, patio sets and other such merchandise.
With research showing that many households plan to cut back on summer travel — a Rand McNally survey found two-thirds plan to shorten or cancel summer road trips — Wal-Mart is rolling back prices on everything from mosquito repellant to portable DVD players to baked beans and barbecue sauce.
"Americans are still wanting to have a great summer," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Melissa O'Brien. "They want to enjoy those quick weekend getaways and socialization around the backyard cookout."
Like the retail promotions aimed at drawing people into stores with their federal economic stimulus checks, current efforts to spur summer spending will probably have mixed success, said Nick McCoy, a home goods and home improvement consultant for Columbus-based TNS Retail Forward.
"It's true that a lot of people are staying at home rather than traveling," he said. "However, because of the incredible pressures in terms of rising gas prices and food prices and job uncertainty, I don't see people spending a lot of money on things they wouldn't otherwise. They're still holding onto their wallets very tightly."
He said discounters might do best with lower-priced merchandise, such as Target's new Whim by Cynthia Rowley collection, which includes picnic supplies and backyard games.
"Things to make the yard just more fun, but not big expenditures," said McCoy.
Schwarz, who stocked up on summer supplies at Wal-Mart, said that with five children, her family expects to focus on activities in their southwest Ohio suburban community. She said they usually make a couple of trips to Lake Cumberland in Kentucky, but will cut their car travel this summer to one trip packed with a lot of sightseeing stops.
"We're definitely condensing trips," she said. "We're also talking about getting Kings Island passes (a theme park in neighboring Mason) and making that our vacation."
Mary Kambola, who was checking out grilling meats in a Wal-Mart in West Chester, isn't optimistic about the summer ahead.
"We'll be going out less," she said. "Everything's going up, the gas and food."
Even staying home to cook will cost more this summer — the price of an average barbecue, with burgers, hot dogs, salad, drinks and supplies — will cost an estimated 6% more than last year.
At a nearby Target, shoppers were snapping up outdoor chairs marked down nearly 30%, and at a neighboring Meijer Inc. store shoppers could use "Backyard Coupons" to take $100 off patio sets.
Minneapolis-based Target said this week that first-quarter earnings fell 8% on weaker-than-expected sales. President and Chief Executive Gregg Steinhafel said the company is stressing sale prices, "very mindful that the consumer is very cash-strapped right now."
Kohl's, based in Menomonee Falls, Wis., is offering a new collection by celebrity chef Bobby Flay for grilling and entertaining at home. Spokeswoman Elizabeth DeLuca said the company knows shoppers are very cost-conscious, but declined to discuss its summer strategy.
Wal-Mart store manager Dane Bryan said sales have been brisk for flowers and landscaping materials, indicating that more people plan to use extra time at home to spruce up their yards.
Home improvement retailer Lowe's Cos., which reported a nearly 18% drop in first-quarter earnings this week, said its stores were seeing relatively good sales in areas such as painting, lawn and landscaping supplies.
"Even in today's tough economic times, consumers appear willing to take on smaller projects around the home," said Larry Stone, the company's president and chief operating officer.
The stay-home trend is even helping sales of air fresheners, scented candles and the like, said Martin Hettich, who is Procter & Gamble Co.'s air care marketing director for North America, including for the Febreze brand.
"What we're finding is that people are cutting down on their trips to the mall, they're eating out less; by virtue of spending more time in their home, they actually want to make sure their homes smell nicer," Hettich said.
Ellen Humphrey of West Chester is looking forward to hosting frequent cookouts for her and her husband's family, including five grown children and stepchildren.
"Ultimately, it's probably going to cost us a little more this summer, because we'll be feeding the family," she said with a chuckle. "But we like that."