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Originally published August 27, 2012 at 6:03 PM | Page modified August 27, 2012 at 10:09 PM

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Slow start to back-to-school spending startles retailers

Many children, teenagers and their parents are delaying their school purchases. If people do not go to stores once schools start, it will be bad news for an economy heavily dependent on consumer spending to stay afloat.

The New York Times

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There are a few teenagers who haven't gotten into the spend-spend frenzy of back to... MORE

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Samantha Paradise is starting eighth grade in Manhattan in a couple of weeks, but she won't be decked out in new gear on the first day.

At 13, Samantha doesn't want to be stuck with untrendy items, so she will wait to see if the Superga sneakers that were cool at summer camp are still in fashion, and whether her classmates choose JanSport backpacks or revive the Longchamp and LeSportsac bags from last year. "I don't want to be the only one wearing a different kind of backpack," she said.

In a shift that is upending retailers' plans, many children, teenagers and their parents are delaying their school purchases. A desire to get the trends right accounts for some of the hesitation. But retailers and analysts say the sluggish economy and unusually hot weather have also made for a surprisingly slow start to the back-to-school spending season, one that was expected to be the strongest since before the recession.

If people do not go to stores once schools start, it will be bad news for an economy heavily dependent on consumer spending to stay afloat. And the postponed spending is complicating how stores stock, promote and sell their back-to-school items, some of which have been on the shelves for almost two months.

Charles Holley Jr., chief financial officer of Wal-Mart, said stores were seeing customers "wait until school starts, and they don't buy things until they absolutely have to."

Office Depot's head of retail, Juan Guerrero, said many shoppers were even holding off on buying staples like pens and notebooks.

"People are waiting for deals to occur," Guerrero said.

The consequences could be serious if sales do not rebound. The back-to-school season is the second-largest sales period for retailers, after the Christmas holiday season, and it offers a spate of new designs and a firm reason for shoppers to head to stores. Beyond the profits retailers make from back-to-school sales, what is popular and what is not provides an important barometer as they prepare for the holidays.

Earlier this month, when the National Retail Federation surveyed consumers with school-age children, less than 8 percent had completed their back-to-school shopping, the lowest figure in four years. More than a quarter of respondents said they had not done any shopping, and by that point, school had already started in cities from Georgia to Arizona.

J.C. Penney is trying to cope by adding styles that will go on the racks in early September. Adrienne Tennant, an analyst with Janney Capital Markets, said Abercrombie & Fitch, Old Navy and American Eagle Outfitters had extended sales to attract later shoppers. Looking to next year, the teenage store Hot Topic is rethinking its back-to-school timing.

"The post-back-to-school numbers are up, and the pre-back-to-school numbers are down a little bit," said Lisa Harper, chief executive of Hot Topic. "Next year, we'll probably delay."

Liz Sweney, J.C. Penney's chief merchant, said that while the back-to-school season had been slipping into late August and early September for a couple of years, the trend was more pronounced this year.

"A few weeks into school, a couple things happen," she said. "Weather happens -- it gets cooler -- and kids obviously see what their friends are wearing, particularly for teens, and then they go back to the stores."

J.C. Penney has been running a free-haircut promotion since the beginning of August to attract early shoppers, but it is also stocking up for later shoppers. Sweney said the retailer had ordered more new merchandise to arrive in early September than it did last year. And as the fall goes on, it will emphasize layering pieces, like hoodies and varsity-style jackets, that students can add to what they have already purchased.

But not all retailers have been as nimble.

John Morris, an analyst with BMO Capital Markets, said late shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch and the too-early arrival of wintry gear were among the reasons the company performed poorly in the quarter that ended July 28, with sales at stores open for at least a year falling 10 percent.

"Abercrombie in July was flowing in heavier-weight goods -- down vests when it's 95 degrees out, sweaters, outerwear, jackets," Morris said.

Tennant, the Janney analyst, said retailers that extended their August sales were most likely reacting to a slower start to August than they expected.

Later school-start dates are one possible explanation. Guerrero of Office Depot and Harper of Hot Topic said that a number of school districts near where they had stores were starting later this year than last.

But students may also be waiting to shop this year in part because trends are so definite that there is little room for error, Tennant said. (No one wants to show up in high-top sneakers and a chartreuse sweatshirt on the first day of school when everyone else has left the '80s trend behind.)

Older kids, especially, seem to be waiting until after Labor Day, most likely so they can see what their friends are wearing, said Cathy Beaudoin, president of fashion for Amazon.

She and Morris said colored jeans (which became ubiquitous in the spring but are still selling well), printed denim, pleated skirts and dots and floral patterns were currently popular among teenagers.

"Especially when you have a momentous change in fashion," Tennant said, "with young girls, when you're going into a big trend season, the early adopters will certainly be there, but the fashion followers will buy some stuff to start themselves off with, but go back to school and make sure they got the right color, the right fit and the right trend."

Samantha Paradise, the Manhattan eighth-grader, said that while she liked a lot of the trends she had seen in magazines and online, that was not enough to get her into stores before classes started.

"I'm looking to wait," she said.

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