- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2005

It seems as though school just let out, but retailers already are trying to teach consumers a lesson: Shop early.

Discounters such as Wal-Mart and Kmart are targeting parents and children with heavy advertising and discounts. Specialty shops and clothiers such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Express started stocking shelves with back-to-school merchandise earlier than usual.

The earlier the better for retailers, who rely heavily on the back-to-school season to get them over the summer slow-sales hump.

“Retailers want to get beyond the sleepy summer months,” said Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail in New York. “This is a sales opportunity for them.”

About 80 percent of retailers in the malls put their back-to-school displays out two weeks earlier this year, said Holly Guthrie, senior vice president at Morgan Keegan & Co., a New York investment firm that follows the retail sector.

“Many wanted to take advantage of having a full month more for sales,” Ms. Guthrie said. “Retailers reported slow sales throughout most of the spring because of the cooler- and wetter-than-normal weather, so some are extending the back-to-school sales period as a result.”

The National Retail Federation (NRF) expects a slight decline in back-to-school sales this year because of slowed spending on electronics, which makes up about 15 percent of sales. However, the season is still an important one for retailers. Back-to-school spending is estimated to reach $13.4 billion, the NRF said.

Depending on the state or community, some children head back to class as early as the first week in August. But in other locations, including much of the Washington area, children return to school in late August.

While the back-to-school promotions might result in a roll of the eyes from some parents or cringes from students who don’t want the school year to begin, they are catching shoppers’ attention.

One in six parents begin shopping for back-to-school at least two months before school starts, according to a recent NRF survey. Nearly 44 percent begin shopping three weeks to a month before school begins.

“Retailers were able to get out in front of the back-to-school season this year with aggressive promotions that enticed parents into stores,” said Phil Rist, vice president of strategy for BIGresearch, which conducted the annual survey for the NRF. “Though some merchandise categories will struggle, we expect to see retailers create clever discounting strategies that will encourage consumers to buy merchandise now, not later.”

Sunday news circulars highlight discounts that run the gamut from 10 spiral notebooks for $1 at Target and $200 off a Sony flat-panel monitor at Best Buy to 30 percent off all children’s jeans at Kmart, and 30 percent to 50 percent off handbags and accessories at J.C. Penney.

“The back-to-school season is the second-most-important retail time period,” after Christmas, said Jon Gieselman, vice president of advertising and public relations for Kmart. “Every year it picks up more steam.”

Apparel retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Express started offering back-to-school merchandise even earlier than usual this year. Express put its back-to-school displays out a week earlier.

Abercrombie & Fitch put out a preview of its back-to-school offerings the second week in June — when some students are just getting out of school — and put its full line out three weeks later, spokesman Tom Lennox said.

“We are a fashion leader, and it’s important to have our fashions out before the competition,” Mr. Lennox said. “Back-to-school is one of the biggest times of the year for our business.”

By starting the season earlier, retailers have the opportunity to draw consumers back in the middle of the season to buy more merchandise, Ms. Liebmann said. But she warns that retailers have to be prepared to stock their stores with new products throughout the season, which lasts through September.

“If you put merchandise in stores now, you can’t keep the same merchandise in the stores until September,” Ms. Liebmann said. “We have certainly become a nation that wants new things often.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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