- The Washington Times - Friday, September 6, 2002

The back-to-school shopping season a precursor to the much-anticipated holiday season disappointed retailers.
Plagued by job concerns and a shaky stock market, parents were less generous this year with their children's back-to-school budgets as some department stores, specialty retailers and discount chains reported lower-than-expected results yesterday.
"Consumers are still out there. They're buying cars, but they are staying clear away from department stores and general merchandise stores," said Michael P. Niemira, vice president of Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd.
Sales at U.S. chain stores fell 1.7 percent over the four weeks of August, according to Instinet Research's weekly Redbook report.
Wal-Mart, which has consistently reported monthly sales increases this year, had a 3.8 percent gain in sales at stores open at least a year, less than analysts had expected. Same-store sales are the best indicator of a retailer's financial health. Total sales at the largest discount retailer rose 11.1 percent for the month.
Target's August same-store sales slipped 0.1 percent, but total sales were up 7.5 percent. Kohl's Corp.'s same-store sales increased 4.0 percent and reported a total sales gain of 19.4 percent.
While the discount retailers had some promising results, some specialty retailers and department stores did not fare as well.
Federated Department Stores Inc., May Department Stores Inc. and Sears, Roebuck & Co. reported same-store sales drops of 5.8 percent to 11.1 percent in August.
Gap Inc., Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle Outfitters all prime back-to-school clothing suppliers reported sales declines last month.
Same-store sales for Limited Brands Inc., which includes Victoria's Secret, Lerner New York and Express, rose 1 percent in August, and total sales increased 5 percent.
During the last week of August, U.S. chain store sales rose 0.5 percent following three straight weekly declines, according to the Redbook report.
Ferris Kaplan, marketing director at Fair Oaks, said the Fairfax shopping mall was bustling with customers in August, especially the last weekend as last-minute shoppers stocked up on back-to-school supplies or waited for Labor Day sales.
"It was very encouraging," Mr. Kaplan said. "We were incredibly busy. We hope it continues through the holidays."
Analysts say the back-to school shopping season could be an indication of what retailers can expect this holiday season.
In fact, this shopping period could end up looking rosy if the Christmas sales period turns out badly, said Frank Badillo, a senior retail economist at Retail Forward, an industry research firm in Columbus, Ohio.
"Because a lot of the back-to-school spending is not discretionary, it's just got to be made," Mr. Badillo said. "I think the pace of consumer spending in retail sales is going to slow into the holiday."
Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation, said last month's shopping season is not an indication of how holiday shopping will turn out.
While the economy is a factor, holiday shopping entails people buying gifts for others, not for themselves like during the back-to-school and fall shopping seasons.
"When buying for themselves, people are more flexible," Mr. Krugman said. "When buying for others, the same rules don't apply."
This article is based in part on wire-services reports.


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