It's almost time for the youngsters to go back to school, and parents usually must dig deeply into their wallets to get ready for what has become one of the biggest retail blitzes of the year -- back-to-school shopping.
In today's retail market where prices for designer wear can be prohibitive for many shoppers, people are eager to scout around for bargains.
Parents looking for back-to-school clothes are increasingly forgoing retail shops and flocking to second-hand stores, Harford thrift store owners say.
"Back-to-school is our busiest season and it's grown every year since we opened four years ago," said Nancy Nowakowski, owner of Kids Korner on Federal Hill Road in Jarrettsville.
"Why would you go to a department store and spend $40 on a child's outfit when you could buy it here for $8?" she asked.
And, she said, well-to-do families are just as likely to shop at second-hand stores as are less-affluent families.
"Some people are very thrifty and it has nothing to do with how much money they have," agreed Carol Finke, owner of One More Time LTD of Fallston.
In the parking lot of the store at 2101 Bel Air Road, Linda Williams was happy to show off the purchases she had made for her two boys.
"You have to think ahead and buy things when you see them," the Edgewood resident explained. For about $20 she had bought a pair of denim pants and two pullovers for 7-year-old Jeremy, and she had found two brightly patterned sweaters for 6-year-old Jason.
"There is nothing wrong with any of this [the clothes]," Mrs. Williams said.
She said she would shop at least two or three more second-hand stores, searching for back-to-school clothes.
Mrs. Williams started shopping thrift stores about four years ago when she quit her job to spend more time with her family. Now, she shops for bargains first and goes to the mall only for those things she hasn't found, like underwear and socks.
Growing consumer awareness is the main reason that business keeps growing, said Mrs. Finke, who has owned her shop for 12 years.
Teen-agers, notoriously fashion-fickle, will buy second-hand school clothes but only if they are brand-name and popular, Mrs. Finke said.
"If they can find an $80 sweater for just $12 or $14, they are thrilled, but only if it's still in the magazines," she said.
"Harford County families are very label-conscious. They want to buy second-hand the same brands that they saw at stores in the mall," she added.
In general, thrift stores can be divided into two groups: consignment shops, where customers sell their old clothes and the store gets a percentage of the price, and nonprofit stores, where people drop off old clothes for a tax-deduction.
Both types have worked hard to overcome their bargain-basement image, of clothes strewn haphazardly in boxes or of old, out-of-fashion clothing. Clothes are sorted by size and type and worn-out clothes are refused, Mrs. Finke said.
Shirley Craig, who manages Re-Runs in Edgewood, a nonprofit store sponsored by the Association for Retarded Citizens, said that some first-time customers don't realize for a few minutes that they are in a second-hand store.
"We take great pains to look like a boutique," she said. There are attractive window displays and clothes are grouped according to size and type, not jumbled together on a rack.
Ms. Craig said her biggest problem as a retailer is persuading people to donate old clothes to the store.
"Sometimes I have problems keeping clothes in stock," she said. What's popular depends on the time of year. Casual clothes are selling well now for back-to-school. Around the holidays or prom time, fancy cocktail dresses or evening wear are in demand.
Her customers run the gamut from professional women who work at nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground to poor families who buy clothes with vouchers issued by local churches.
"Teen-agers are our biggest customers right now and they're looking for something new to wear when school starts," she said at her Edgewater Village Shopping Center store.
"Teens are coming in with $20 to $40 and seeing how far they can stretch it," she said. "They're looking for jeans and other casual clothes, nothing fancy."
The nonprofit store frequently receives donations of new clothes from nationally known clothing manufacturers with local operations, she said.
Those donors insist on remaining anonymous to protect their local retailers, she added. Sometimes the merchandise is donated because it may be missing a button or have a small defect, she said.
bTC Donated new jeans, for example, sell for about $10. A used pair, in good condition, would sell for about $6, she said.
Small imperfections, like a missing button, are the only flaws that are acceptable. There can be no tears or rips or stains, store owners said.
That policy means that play clothes for small children are sometimes in short supply at second-hand stores.
Younger children's school clothes can be "recycled" at least twice, depending on how many older siblings took a turn wearing the duds, said Jody Duke, who works at Bearly Used on Main Street in Bel Air.
"Church clothes, especially fancy dresses for Christmas or Easter, can be sold over and over again," she said. Everyday outfits for little boys can sometimes be hard to find because boys are so hard on their clothes, she said.
"It can be harder to find back-to school clothes for boys than girls," she said. However, she said parents can afford to keep looking because stores will continue to stock back-to-school clothes through September. School starts this year Aug. 30.
"Most children return to class wearing shorts and other summer clothes because it's so hot. A lot of parents won't buy a thing until they have a chance to see what the other kids are wearing," said Mrs. Finke of One More Time.