As music videos played on flat screen TVs overhead, Brendon Lee, 7, sank into a brown cushioned stool at Shoe City on Monday while his great-aunt poked the toe of the white Converse sneaker on his left foot. It was the right shoe but the wrong size.
"Your toe is right there," said Evelyn Forby, as she waited for a store associate to check in the back for something larger.
New shoes were the last thing on the list as the Baltimore resident wrapped up back-to-school shopping for the boy she's raised since he was a baby. It was a scene repeated again and again at Shoe City and other Mondawmin Mall retailers Monday as parents embarked on the annual ritual of preparing for a new school year.
"I try not to wait until the last minute," said Forby, noting she'd already bought all Brendon's supplies and school uniforms. "To me, you get better sales."
Like Forby, some shoppers were trying to beat the end-of-summer rush. Others strategically planned to come out this week — Maryland's annual tax-free shopping period — when they can buy shoes and clothing without the usual 6 percent sales tax. The tax holiday applies to qualifying items of clothing and footwear priced at $100 or less.
Consumers are expected to spend slightly more on back-to-school purchases this year than last year, driven partly by growing demand for electronics and a need to restock supplies, according to the National Retail Federation. The retail trade group expects families with children in grades K-12 to spend an average $669.28 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics, a 5 percent increase.
"Slow improvements in the economy may have contributed to the growth in confidence among back-to-school shoppers," said Matthew Shay, the federation's president and CEO, in a statement. But "we know Americans are still grappling with their purchase decisions every day."
Despite the increase in family spending, total spending is expected to drop slightly to $26.5 billion because there are fewer households with school-age children, according to the NRF survey. When back-to-college spending is factored in, the figure almost triples to nearly $75 billion, making it the second biggest sales period for retailers after the holidays.
Jodi Bahr found herself spending more than usual to send her youngest son, 12, back to Morrell Park Elementary Middle School this year because her other three children are now out of school.
"My load has lightened," Bahr said.
On Sunday, she and son Dasean Mack were at Wal-Mart buying clothes and supplies. On Monday they bought a pair of Jordan sneakers at Shoe City. Still to be purchased were a pair of Puma athletic shoes.
Frances Miller, 72, worked school shopping into a special day out with three great-granddaughters, ages 12, 10 and 5, but did so on a fixed budget. They started the morning at Payless Shoesource then planned to take the light rail to Old Navy and Five Below at shopping centers in Baltimore County.
"I went to the bank and said 'this is all I'm spending,'" Miller said of her strategy for the day. "If I see it on sale, I'm going to get it. It has to be on sale."
Staples, the office supply store chain, has been more aggressive in luring bargain-conscious shoppers for the crucial school selling period, said Tarodd Banks, general manger of the Pikesville location.
The office supply store unveiled its back-to-school merchandise at the end of June and has offered a price match plus 10 percent discount on competitors' prices. Store traffic began heating up about two weeks ago, Banks said.
"This will be the busiest time of the year," he said. "You'll see a lot of foot traffic, seven days a week. [Families] tend to focus on sending the kids back to school in August."
New collections of supplies such as notebooks and folders geared to teens or younger students — Teen Vogue and Nickelodeon — have proved popular as have backpacks, Banks said.
"We're really going through the bookbags," he said.
Maryland's annual tax-free week is expected to drive a lot of the business, said Greg Vaughan, manager of Mondawmin's DTLR store, which specializes in urban footwear and apparel.
While increased school uniform use has cut into the back-to-school clothing business, he said, "we're a shoe-driven store. We still get a large share of business. Kids still need shoes."
Audreda Flythe began school shopping earlier than usual — in July — for 13-year-old Anya, an 8th grader at Baltimore IT Academy. Flythe worried that if she waited too long, she wouldn't find her daughter's size. She estimated she's spent several hundred dollars on uniform khakis, jeans, shirts and tennis shoes. And that's with better-than-usual sales.
"This year I got some good deals," even on the higher priced tennis shoes, she said.
On Monday, the pair stopped at Shoe City to look for Jordan tennis shoes. Zeroing in on a display, Anya held up the shoes she wanted.
"This is it," Flythe said. "I'm done."