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SCHOOL SHOPPER: GRADE ABOVE Consumers are buying, but only after long search


Meet the back-to-school shopper of 1993: She's the one who examines every stitch of a $29 pair of jeans before she buys them.

Determined to stretch every dollar to its limit, she's insisting on quality, looking for value and buying strategically so she can get the most out of every garment. Salespeople say she's taking longer than ever to agonize before making a purchase.

But the most important thing is that she is buying -- at least around Baltimore.

Judging by a consensus of local retailers, back-to-school shoppers (overwhelmingly women) are spending more freely than last year. Nobody's calling it a boom, but signs are hopeful that the American consumer can give the economy a modest jolt this fall.

"I sense a loosening in the spending habits of my customers," said Robin Kilberg, owner of Kid's Closet in Owings Mills. "If you'd come last year I would have cried to you."

On a scale of one to 10, Ms. Kilberg said, she would rate this back-to-school season as an 8 "heading for a 9." The early summer was slow, she said, but by the third week of July "things really opened up."

Ms. Kilberg caters to an upscale clientele that could be insulated from the employment woes affecting less affluent Marylanders, but there are signs that the discount end of the retail spectrum also is experiencing a modest pickup.

"Things are working out a lot better than I anticipated," said RTC Kevin White, manager of the Kmart store in Westminster. Sales have been spurred by some hot items such as Barney and Jurassic Park lunch boxes, and even with competition from a new Wal-Mart across the street, Mr. White said it was the best back-to-school season he's seen in several years.

Meanwhile, at discount-oriented Westview Mall, traffic is up about 10-12 percent over last year, said spokesman David Nevins.

"Nobody's glooming and dooming it," said Rene Daniel, whose Towson-based The Daniel Group acts as a consultant to shopping centers. "Everybody is sounding optimistic."

Well, not everybody. Several store managers at Owings Mills Town Center, who prefer not to be identified because of company policy, said they had seen little to suggest an upturn.

Back-to-school sales "stink," said the manager of an athletic footwear store. Sales are off about 10 percent from last year's depressed levels, said the manager of a children's clothing store.

These pessimistic views are echoed on the national scale.

"The back-to-school season so far has been lackluster for most retailers," said Alan Millstein, editor and publisher of Fashion Market Report, a trade publication.

Consumers still are too worried about insecure jobs and eroding incomes to get excited about shopping, Mr. Millstein said. He added that sales have been slowed by a "confusion in fashion."

"All the stores are filled with long skirts for back to school . . . while the fashion magazines are showing micro miniskirts," he said. "You're going back from that suffragette look to that Tina Turner look.

"The last thing we needed was to have a confused consumer out there. Today, clothing is an investment, not an opinion."

But from her strategic perch in an oversized kiosk at the Owings Mills mall, Robin Mehl can discern a definite fashion trend that's encouraging young shoppers to part with their dollars. Ms. Mehl, manager of the Jordan Marie children's clothing store, said the late-1960s look is hot.

"This year it makes me think of like 'Laugh-In,' the 'Mod Squad' and that era," she said. "They're definitely buying it."

For most retailers, any fashion shift away from the basic denim look that has prevailed for almost two years would be a welcome relief.

Shoppers are taking extra time to find items that can work in a number of combinations, such as ruffled silk shirts that can go with jeans for a casual look and with skirts for office wear.

Back-to-school sales are closely watched in the retail industry because they are often a sign of what merchants can expect during the all-important holiday season. After a miserable summer season during which the weather, the economy and politics seemed to be conspiring to undermine sales, retailers are waiting anxiously for a sign of a turnaround.

If a University of Georgia forecast is correct, they might get it. Jeffrey Humphreys, director of economic forecasting there, is predicting a 6.1 percent sales increase over last year's back-to-school season. That would translate into $347 billion in sales during August and September, a gain of $20 billion over last year.

That prediction seems to fly in the face of surveys showing a pervasive and persistent lack of consumer confidence. But Ms. Mehl said that what shoppers say and what they do are two different things.

"They'll complain how tight things are and then they'll spend $50 on a tiny little dress," she said.

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