Yvette Mozie-Ross in Odenton

Yvette Mozie-Ross is among the many Baltimore-area shoppers who are hunting out discounters this back-to-school season. After purchasing these clothes for her son at a retail store last year, the Odenton resident shopped online this time around. 'The discounts were great, but it was less frantic.' (SunSpot photo / August 11, 2003)

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.