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.

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.

"There seem to be a lot of kids who are waiting to shop, to make sure they're on-trend," he says.

Other drivers of September and October back-to-school shopping:

•It saves money. Cindy Swainbank got fed up with doing her son's back-to-school shopping in the summer and missing sales in September and October. "It was frustrating to find the same things on sale six weeks after I bought them," says the computer systems engineer from Scranton, Pa.

This year, she and son David, 16, will hold off on his back-to-school clothes shopping until October.

Lorrie Ortega plans to hold off on 75% of her back-to-school shopping until November The San Antonio resident has two sons, 15 and 7.

"When they start bringing out the spring line," Ortega says, "I start buying winter school clothes really cheap."

•It's too hot in August. Kathy Bergholz, Lindsey's mother, says it's too hard to think about back-to-school clothing in the heat of summer. "Back-to-school shopping in July is a real turn-off. It's too hard to buy new school shoes when you're in flip-flops."

•Some big states are opening schools later. With Texas and Florida both starting school two weeks later this year — and delaying back-to-school "sales tax holidays" by two weeks — some stores saw sales dip in July and jump in August.

"It made a huge difference in sales at our stores," says Jim McGinty, chief financial officer at teen retailer Hot Topic hott.

•Gift cards are becoming shopping allowances. A growing number of parents, eager to teach their kids how to budget for expenses, are handing them their back-to-school shopping allowances via gift cards.

Once the card is spent, that's it, says Ken Nisch, retail consultant at JGA. With the gift card, he says, "Kids no longer have to do all their back-to-school shopping in one day while Mom is standing there with her credit card."

It's not over until …

There were no gift card limits for Lindsey Bergholz.

After waiting nearly three weeks past the start of the school year, she finally hit the mall on Sept. 9 with her mom. They spent roughly $500 on a trip to the Oak Brook Center Mall in Oak Brook, Ill.

Later, Lindsey went online and did more damage.

Even so, there's more to go.

Kathy Bergholz, Lindsey's credit card-carrying mom, says, "I don't think that we're ever quite done with back-to-school shopping."