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Baltimore-area businesses, families face uncertainty about back-to-school shopping

The uniform store in Parkville is brimming with plaid skirts, button-down shirts, blazers and other apparel students need when they head off to private, parochial and some public schools.

But customers have been scarce and business is off at FlynnO’Hara Uniforms, a family-owned chain with stores in nine states, including four in Maryland. Amid all the uncertainty created by coronavirus, parents have held off buying.

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For the uniform supplier and other retailers, this back-to-school shopping season is a worrisome time.

Heading into August, when FlynnO’Hara usually makes half its annual sales, “we sort of have to wait and see what happens with back to school,” said Sean Flynn, president and CEO.

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“We have inventory to beat the band and are just waiting for everyone to show up,” he said. “It’s not a very comfortable position to be sitting in.”

In the Baltimore area, school systems have been unveiling plans that stress distance learning. Most will remain online until the end of January, while Baltimore City plans to consider having some in-person classes after the first quarter. Harford County also plans virtual classes, adding learning centers where students can go to get help with online lessons.

But most private and independent schools plan to offer in-person instruction. The Archdiocese of Baltimore plans to accommodate as many students as possible for in-person classes five days a week, while offering distance learning as an option.

At FlynnO’Hara, inventory was ordered long before the pandemic erupted. Flynn said some schools in the retailer’s mid-Atlantic and Northeast footprint have not announced plans, but recently many private schools have said they’re planning some form of an in-person format.

“As a business, we’re definitely feeling a little bit more relief,” Flynn said. Now, he’s hoping shoppers won’t wait for the last minute, especially this year.

For the first time, the retailer offered discounts during its peak summer season, aiming to boost sales but also prevent a last-minute rush that would be difficult to accommodate given COVID-19 in-store restrictions. Flynn is urging customers to shop online and not wait to place orders. Merchandise can be returned if not needed.

Sandy Bremseth took her son and daughter shopping at the chain’s Parkville store just days before the archdiocese finalized school reopening plans. They bought shirts and blazers, pants and shoes. The family from Towson was among just a handful of shoppers in the store.

Even as Bremseth waited to hear whether her children would start at home or at school, she wanted to be prepared.

“As of now, it looks like they’re going in, so we have to get the uniforms,” said Bremseth, whose son, Cameron, will be in eighth grade at Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Towson and whose daughter, Natalie, will start high school at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Essex. “I’m sure if we waited until the last minute, there will be hordes of people in here.”

A survey by the National Retail Federation released in July showed that more than half of consumers who hadn’t made back-to-school purchases had put off shopping because they did not yet know what they would need.

A long continuation of virtual learning also could hurt sales of back-to-school sneakers and athletic shoes for sports, one analyst said. High unemployment, later school start dates and cancellations of fall sports could contribute to lackluster sales, Matt Powell, a senior industry adviser for sports for NPD Group, said in a report.

Sneaker sales were strong in June, due to pent-up demand and promotions after three months of lockdowns. But Powell says those levels are not sustainable.

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“Every day, we hear about another school district going virtual this fall,” Powell wrote in the report. “Those students probably don’t need new shoes to take classes virtually (do they need shoes at all?).”

Parents may end up spending more on technology for the home and putting less into shoes and shirts, he said. He noted that as COVID-19 cases rise in some parts of the country, some states that reopened have reverted to locking down. “This does not bode well from a retail sales perspective,” Powell said.

Since reopening in May after the coronavirus shutdown, Hanover-based urban apparel retailer DTLR Villa has seen improvements. In-store traffic, sales and shoppers’ average time in store all have increased, said Jeff Bowden, an executive vice president.

He added, however, “With the anticipation of less traffic due to virtual learning … we may have to be more aggressive with sales promotions.”

The head of Baltimore-based Under Armour, asked about the back-to-school season during a conference call Friday, said the pandemic will likely hurt the sports apparel maker’s business overall for the rest of the year, but it’s too early to know how much it will impact school-related shopping.

“First, are schools going to be opened, and second are sports going to be played?” said Patrick Frisk, Under Armour’s president and CEO. “There is a lot of uncertainty about both of those.”

Some bright spots are anticipated as parents look to spend unprecedented amounts on laptops and computer accessories to prepare for at least some classes taking place online, the National Retail Federation said. That trend is expected to boost overall back-to-school spending to record levels, the retail trade group is forecasting.

Parents with children in elementary school through high school plan to spend an average $789 per family, or a total of almost $34 billion, up from $26 billion last year and from 2012′s record of more than $30 billion, an NRF back-to-school survey showed.

About three-quarters of parents who expected students to stay home said they planned to buy computers or home furnishings, including laptops, speakers, headphones, printers or other accessories. Others planned to buy desks or chairs, workbooks and calculators, according to the survey.

State officials are hoping Maryland’s apparel retailers will get an added boost this year from the state’s tax-free week, planned for Aug. 9 through Aug. 15. Any single qualifying article of clothing or footwear priced $100 or less will be exempt from the state’s 6% sales tax. The first $40 of any backpack purchase also is tax free.

At The Mall in Columbia, which reopened June 20 after the shutdown, about 90% of stores have reopened and mall traffic is about half of its normal summertime count. Some retailers report little change in apparel buying compared with previous years, especially as new merchandise is rolled out for the fall, said Barbara A. Nicklas, the mall’s senior general manager.

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“Our retailers sell mostly apparel for back-to-school … and their plans for what is in essence back-to-school have not changed,” Nicklas said. “Kids grow, and the weather changes.”

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Despite new social distancing and disinfecting protocols in stores, back-to-school shopping routines remain unchanged for some parents. One is Shawna Longdo, a Bel Air resident whose four children attend Perry Hall Christian School.

Longdo said the school brought parents in over the summer to show them plans to return students to classrooms safely, with new spacing and cleaning guidelines.

She was at FlynnO’Hara buying polo shirts and socks for daughters Brianna, 14, and Makayla, 12. Both girls said they feel ready to return to school after months mostly in the house.

“It’s not normal that kids are very excited to go back to school in July, but I think this time they are like, ‘Please, can I see somebody else other than my siblings?‘” Longdo said. “They are ready for socialization, however that works.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Lillian Reed contributed to this article.

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