Strolling through the Columbia Mall, shoppers are bombarded with signs advertising back-to-school bargains and trends. In almost every store window, there is something that retailers hope no student will be able to resist.
The back-to-school season, which lasts from late July to mid-September, is typically a highly profitable time for stores. This year, however, retailers are worried by a struggling economy that has cut into their profits the past three years. Even President Bush is watching the back-to-school season for signs that consumer confidence is rising. In a recent public appearance, the President expressed hope that parents will spend tax-rebate checks issued by the federal government on clothes and supplies for their school-age children.
But some Columbia parents are saying that neither the economy nor the tax windfall will have much effect on their spending.
“I’ll just buy things as my kids need them,” said Sharon Ward, a mother of two who was recently shopping at Wal-Mart. “I’m not on a time line, like school starts Aug. 18 and I have to get everything before then.”
At J.C. Penney in the Columbia Mall, Linda Mathews was, as usual, on the lookout for sales. But, she said, “as far as the economy affecting (my) shopping, it really hasn’t.”
The National Retail Federation predicts that the average family will spend about $450.76 on back-to-school items — a modest $9.16 increase from the 2002 season. Retailers are hoping the projected increase will help turn around a three-year, 8.3 percent decline in apparel prices, which are demand-driven. Such declines are due to weak economic growth and low consumer confidence, said Todd Wilson, an economist with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Many retailers are attempting to reverse the trend by devising new ways to attract shoppers for this back-to-school season.
GapInc. has already seen a change in their 2003 season, thanks to new products and marketing campaigns. First quarter sales increased 12 percent this year, said Katie Hall of GapKids public relations department. She credits a new television commercial “that goes with the look and feel of this season’s trends. We’re hoping to really get the word out.”
Other retailers are also hoping new product lines will attract more shoppers. Wal-Mart, well known for traditional school supplies such as paper, pens and notebooks, has expanded its mix of merchandise to include new clothing lines, said Melissa Berryhill, a Wal-Mart spokesperson.
Berryhill declined to say whether Wal-Mart expected a boom in sales because of the 2003 Child-Tax Credit, which gives parents a tax-rebate worth up to $400 per child. The Internal Revenue Service began sending out the checks late last month. Some Columbia families say they will spend the extra cash on back-to-school items, while others plan to either put it in savings or spend it on other needs.
At Wal-Mart, Terry Christensen, a father of one school-aged child, said he had received his check recently, but has yet to spent it. “We put that in the bank,” he said. “We’ll just save it and use it as something comes up.”
Linda Mathews hasn’t received her check, and she isn’t quite sure how she’ll spend it yet. “I hate to count it before I see it,” she said.