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Discounters big for school shopping

Special to SunSpot

Wesley Ross graduated in May from kindergarten at Julia Brown Montessori School in Columbia wearing the back-to-school clothes his mother purchased from Campus Outfitters.

Far from the 6-year-old's mind at the time was how his mother's shopping experience was extremely nerve wracking.

"In mid-August, I shopped in the Campus Outfitters store," said Yvette Mozie-Ross, undergraduate admissions director at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County who lives in Odenton. "Big mistake! It was a madhouse."

"The manager literally came out from the back, stood in the middle of the store and announced that they would not be able to fulfill any more orders that day -- and, at the earliest, would be able to deliver uniforms after school started!" Mozie-Ross continued. "Needless to say, there were some upset parents."

Now, with a better idea of how her son's clothes fit, Mozie-Ross plans to forgo any possible in-store chaos this year by spending at least $300 online at that same store for her son's khaki plants, blue shirts, tan socks, brown belt, cardigan sweater and shoes.

"I just don't have time for the madness," she said. "And best of all, my son's school clothes will be sitting at my doorstep three-to-five business days later."

Residents in the Baltimore region are expected more than ever to choose price over location by shopping at discount retailers this back-to-school season, experts say. As tough economic times continue to hold sway over purchasing decisions, more than 78.1 percent of back-to-school buyers are expected to shop at discount retailers, according to the National Retail Federation, an industry organization based in Washington.

Discount stores long have supplanted traditional retailers, regardless of economic times, because of pricing and the attraction of one-stop shopping.

But this season, many outlets -- including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., even the remaining Kmart Corp. stores -- are expected to seal their appeal with shoppers by focusing on apparel, experts say.

"Discount stores know parents will buy their school supplies, but they're trying to focus on getting them to buy their jeans now," said Ellen Tolley, spokeswoman for the retail federation. "Once you have someone in your store, you need to keep them there."

Discounts, promotions beckon

Kurt Barnard, a longtime industry observer and president of the Retail Forecasting firm in Upper Montclair, N.J., said many shoppers will be gravitating to discounters this season ultimately because "there's nothing really new to buy."

"There's nothing out there that have parents saying, 'Gee, my kids have to have that,' " he said. "And many kids don't want to buy anything at all because they want to see what everybody else has."

As a result, Barnard said, "Parents will be buying back-to-school items because they have to: Their kids have outgrown everything. They can't wear what they bought last year."

For these reasons, the back-to-school shopping season is growing longer, Barnard said, starting as early as July and ending as late as October.

"There are certain things that have to be bought before school starts -- notebooks, pens and paper -- and the discounters will get that," he said.

But traditional merchants still are fighting back -- with their own discounts and extensive media advertising. For instance, Gap Inc., recently unleased an expensive campaign featuring Madonna and hip-hop music star Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott touting its fall lines of khakis and other clothing.

At Sears, Roebuck & Co., it's all about denim.

"Anything denim," said Lee Antonio, a spokeswoman for the company, based in Hoffman Estates, Ill., with five Baltimore-area stores. "Lots of jeans, styles, brands and fits. Low rise, high rise, boot and slim cuts. Our denim is selling well.

"We're not seeing an impact from discount stores," Antonio continued. "What we have to offer may be so much more than what discount stores have to offer -- including ourelectronics, computers, bedding and different appliances that older kids need for back-to-campus. We're filling a different niche. We're priced competitively."

Still, Barnard said, don't expect many shoppers to buy from such merchants this season. "Price will ultimately determine where a back-to-school product is bought and from which store it is purchased from," he said.

That also goes for online retailing, which has blossomed in recent years. Mozie-Ross is among the 10.9 percent of consumers whom the retail federation estimated will be shopping online to avoid long check-out lines.

Some banking institutions are courting these back-to-school shoppers with deals at certain retailers. Bank of America Corp., for example, is offering free shipping on purchases of $75 or more at, as well as 5 percent off purchases of at least $50 at book retailer Barnes & Noble -- and 15 percent off purchases and free shipping at the Sketchers shoe chain.

"A couple of years ago, buying online was a mistrusted novelty," Barnard said. "More people are doing it, but, still, it is a minuscule amount overall. You have to buy discount online, or else you'll get soaked with shipping-and-handling charges."

Spending 'on par with the economy'

Overall, families with school-aged children will spend an average of $450.76 onback-to-school items this year, up 2 percent from last year, according to the retail federation. That compares with $441.60 in last year, $456.70 in 2001, $548.80 in 2000 and $436.00 in 1999.

"Spending has been consistent over the last five years but fluctuates righton par with the economy," Tolley said.

The average consumer expects to spend $206.24 on clothing, $84.44 on shoes, $74.04 on school supplies and $86.03 on electronics and computer-related equipment.

The federation's survey, conducted by BIGresearch in Columbus, Ohio, found that spending for the back-to-school season will pump $14.1 billion into the nation's economy, with purchases by young people adding another $750 million to the total.

"With consumers heading to the stores for everything from scissors tosneakers, retailers are hopeful that the back-to-school season will signalthe beginning of an economic recovery," said Tracy Mullin, the federation's president.

Barnard, however, remains skeptical -- despite the federal government's recent distribution of child tax-credit payouts to 25 million families, expected to total $13 billion.

"People still aren't in a buying mood," he said. "The government just said that Americans' productivity has gone up, but not employment. You're getting more out of people than ever before, but a lot of people are still out of work."

Beating the rush

Rhonda Milan may be one reason why the back-to-school season is lasting longer.

The Laurel resident began putting merchandise on layaway at various discount stores in July -- and has visited many consignment and thrift stores near her child's school for uniforms already embroidered with the school's emblem.

"My main concern was being able to buy what we needed timely, before the back-to-school shopping rush," said Milan, whose daughter will begin prekindergarten this fall. "It's important to me that she meets the school's criteria and be prepared for her first day."

Milan, a financial analyst for Teculan Inc., a government contractor based in Greenbelt, has completed her back-to-school shopping, sans a few items still on layaway.

After years of doing her back-to-school shopping at malls, Dorothy Green, also of Odenton, now only buys from discounters. On one Saturday last month, she hit Target and Wal-Mart.

"The same merchandise you see in the malls, you can find at discount stores and save some money," said Green, a budget analyst for the National Security Agency at Fort Meade. Her 18-year-old daughter will become a freshman at the University of Maryland-College Park this fall.

Green scored big at Target, picking up most of her daughter's dormitory needs: a desk set, lamp, storage cubes, storage bins, as well as a trunk. She also bought her daughter television with a VCR, a DVD player and -- though not at Target -- a used car.

"I've spent too much money already," she said. Since her daughter has a part timejob, Green did not buy her clothes. "I gave her money, and she will hit the malls."

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