School shoppers find ways to shave costs

Shed no tears for Isabel Hales. The 6-year-old already has shed plenty for herself after being told she wasn't getting a second pair of new shoes for school.

Her mom, Suzanne, says she had to cut back. The single mother of five, a school district secretary, has bought her kids school clothes, backpacks, supplies and shoes each year. This year, the Draper, Utah, resident is promising only shoes — and only because their feet grew.

"Back-to-school shopping has me shaking in my boots," she says. Retailers should be, too.

Hales is among USA TODAY readers who say they're taking the ax — albeit creatively — to back-to-school shopping. Many will spend less than $100 a kid. Some will spend less than that for the entire family.

There will be fewer new backpacks. Fewer mall trips. Fewer electronics. Some are cutting back even on basic school supplies such as pencils, pens and paper.

USA TODAY looked closely at the back-to-school shopping plans of 10 families and found one clear common thread: They are trying to be creative in finding ways to cut back-to-school costs. Such as having kids try on all of last year's duds before shopping, tracking down used textbooks and taking needle and thread to the holes in last year's backpacks.

Maybe it's the back-to-school from hell. It certainly is shaping up as one filled with shopping negotiations between parents and kids. But it's also dotted with cleverly calculated savings steps, some of which may stick around after the economic knot loosens.

First, however, financially pinched parents who have nixed summer travel to gas up the car and restock the fridge face the unenviable task of getting the kids to understand and accept big back-to-school shopping cuts.

To a point, they can. "I'll get over it," says 13-year-old Scott Camus, who will not be getting the new backpack he so badly wanted this year. The eighth-grader from Woodbridge, Va., will grudgingly use last year's pack. But when he gets to school and sees other guys with new packs, he knows he'll think: "Aw, heck, he's lucky."

Such luck won't be widespread.

"I don't ever recall heading into fall where people were this conscious about what they were spending," says David Szymanski, retail professor at Texas A&M University. "We haven't seen anything like this in decades."

Retail experts say the driver is fear. Fear of continued gas price increases. Fear of soaring food costs. Fear of inflation. Fear of home values — and stock portfolios — declining. Fear of losing jobs.

"It's fear of the unknown," says Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at NPD Group, a research firm. When NPD asked 60,000 consumers in January if they thought the country was in "tough economic times," 79% said, "Yes." When NPD asked that same question in June, it was 85%.

Two of three surveyed said they plan to spend less on back-to-school stuff.

Retailers know this.

It's why Staples spls tried to lure consumers in this month by selling pencils for a penny and protractors for a nickel. "Consumers are telling us, more than anything they want value," says John Mahoney, chief financial officer.

At American Eagle Outfitters aeo, some $29.50 fashion T-shirts now are less than $20. The chain hopes the message to shoppers is, "When you get to the store, steal this," says Henry Stafford, merchandising chief.

Many purchases will be the result of spirited family horse-trading.

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