While shoppers sorted through racks of discounted shorts and tank tops, retailers at White Marsh Mall began displaying school backpacks and uniforms. Area Target stores offered plenty of summer picnic gear but devoted extensive display space to notebooks, pencils, folders and glue. And while some consumers said they can't think about school purchases until after family vacations, office supply stores such as Staples began promoting back-to-school computers, laptops and iPads.
"Most middle-income consumers are going to be very selective in what they purchase," said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics, a Boston-based research firm. "Consumers are still feeling cautious and uncertain about where things are headed. For a vast majority of households, they're going to buy what they need and not a lot beyond that."
Tanasha Siena, an Edgewood resident whose family was reduced to a single income when she began staying home with her 16-month-old son, said rising costs for food and other necessities have made her even more price conscious. When it comes to getting her 13-year-old son ready for eighth grade, her strategy is to buy only what he needs, supplement with leftover school supplies and shop at off-price chains such as Marshalls to get brand names at a discount.
"I'd rather dig through the racks" to find a bargain, Siena said. "As they get older, it's more expensive, because now I'm buying men's clothing and men's shoes, and $120 calculators. If I see something on sale ... and I think the price is good, I'll get it."
Though the season that starts as early as July and runs through mid-September is less of a make-or-break time for retailers than end-of-year holiday shopping, it's still important to discounters, department stores, teen and children-oriented specialty shops, and electronics and office supply merchants.
U.S. retailers were expected to have back-to-school and back-to-college sales of $68 billion last year, four to five times the sales typically generated by the next-biggest annual holiday, Mother's Day, according to the National Retail Federation. The group, which has not yet released a 2012 back-to-school forecast, had said the average family with students in kindergarten through high school would spend about $600 last year, about the same as in 2010.
To drive spending amid low consumer confidence, retailers have been discounting more than usual this summer, said Nancy Liu, a retail strategist at Kurt Salmon in New York.
"I think a lot of retailers are looking toward back-to-school and back-to-buying," Liu said. "Retailers are hoping to see a resurgence as consumers are forced to go back" to stores.
To bring shoppers through the doors, retailers are expected to compete with heavy promotions and discounts.
"It's a crucial selling season for them, and they are going to do as much as they can to leverage it and drive sales in their stores and online," Perkins said. "It will be a pretty promotional back-to-school shopping period. Retailers will have to be aggressive in markdowns and offering incentives for consumers to come in."
"Door-buster" deals from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other retailers have started, with deals such as packs of pens and crayons for a penny — until supplies run out.
"These things are used to get people through the door, and it works," said Maggie Miller, a frugal living expert and blogger from Centreville in Queen Anne's County.
More consumers are becoming aware that competing retailers often will match a low price if shoppers bring them a circular advertising a sale, Miller said. "More and more people are price-matching. The trend is to save more money now because people are so worried about the economy."
Denise Ruby, a Bowleys Quarters resident shopping Wednesday at White Marsh with daughter Megan, 13, said she'll likely take her to some favorite stores — Aeropostale, Hot Topic and Spencer's, but will look for sales and stick to a budget. And she's in no rush, preferring to wait until closer to the start of school.
"I have a certain amount of money put away for school purchases — and that's it," Ruby said.
Retailers can only hope that the improving optimism noted by one forecast released last week pans out. According to a consumer survey by PriceGrabber, a website that tracks and compares retail prices, 63 percent of the respondents said they plan to spend up to $500 this year on back-to-school gear, compared with 48 percent last year. Twenty percent said they plan to spend $500 to $1,000.
A PriceGrabber survey in June had showed that nearly half of consumers expected to spend more this back-to-school season than in 2011 and that nearly 80 percent planned to buy online.