Back-to-school shopping now has a second wave

Nervous freshman Lindsey Bergholz stepped into high school last month with her wardrobe of new back-to-school clothes at the minimum: one pair of jeans.

It isn't that the ninth-grader at Hinsdale Central High School in suburban Chicago doesn't care about what she wears to school. She cares deeply. So deeply that she opted to join many of her peers nationwide in putting off most of their back-to-school apparel shopping until after school starts — after they've seen what's cool.

"You don't want the same shirt that 12 other kids have," says Lindsey, 14, adding that she found herself in that embarrassing situation last year. "But you want to fit in. You're safest if you wait."

Now, Lindsey and millions of kids nationwide are still doing back-to-school clothes shopping in mid- and late September. Some have barely started.

The fear of being uncool appears to have upended apparel shopping habits for the $7.6 billion back-to-school season — the second-most-lucrative season for apparel retailers after the holidays. In 2005, 36% of consumers said they started back-to-school shopping in August, while 25% said they started in September, reported a survey by retail researcher The NPD Group. By 2007, the numbers had flipped, to 25% planning to start in August and 38% in September, according to NPD's online survey of 63,000 consumers in July and August.

Retailers would appear to have little choice but to extend the back-to-school season.

The shift in spending habits has been building. Trends are so localized that what's cool at one school may be totally different at a campus across town. Some students also are holding off while waiting for sales or cooler weather. Others spread out the spending of back-to-school gift cards from parents who want their kids to learn how to live within a limited clothing budget.

The shift is affecting clothing retailers big and small — from teen fashion giant American Eagle Outfitters aeo to small-town chain Maurices. It's changing everything from how they stock fall merchandise to when they have clearance sales to how soon they start preparing for the holiday season. Stores have to refresh back-to-school lines to get their share of September shopping and delay clearance sales on those goods, sometimes into October. That, in turn, delays preparing new displays of winter and gift merchandise for the key holiday season, which can generate up to 40% of annual revenue.

"This (trend) is sending hives through the bodies of most retailers," says Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at NPD. "They all want to put their Christmas merchandise out by the end of August."

Some, however, have begun to embrace the trend. "Students get back to school and are inspired by what they see each other wearing," says Susan McGalla, president and chief merchandiser at American Eagle, with 932 stores in 50 states. "Does this spur another round of buying? Yes."

In response, for the second-consecutive year, the trendy specialty chain tweaked its stores with updated back-to-school fashions the day before Labor Day.

A change in the retail calendar

For years, most retailers were pushing back-to-school merchandise earlier — some even beginning within days of the last school bells in May and June. With few exceptions, they pretty much christened Labor Day as their unofficial end of back-to-school shopping.

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