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Back-to-school shoppers adopt leisurely approach

The month before school started used to be almost as good as Christmas for kids and retailers. But no more.

Parents are tighter with their wallets in a weak economy, and teen-agers are scoping out their classmates before deciding what to wear.

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School shopping will still pump $14.1 billion into the economy, the National Retail Federation estimates. But retailers are finding themselves waiting long weeks into October to score those back-to-school sales.

"They're shopping in waves," said Marshal Cohen, a senior analyst at the NPD Group, a market research company in Port Washington, N.Y. "They'll go out and buy ... what they know the kids need, like some underwear and jeans. They'll buy other stuff later."

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In the end, families will spend an average of $450.76 on back-to-school items, the federation predicts, an improvement from last year's dismal season, when families spent an average $441.60, and many major retailers lost money, finishing the season with racks full of clothes.

At Towson Town Center this week, Jane Lang was buying mainly T-shirts and shoes for her sons Alex, 13, and Dan, 16. She predicted she'd spend about $200 on clothes now and head back to the mall later for coats and other cold-weather clothes.

"It will still be hot for a while, so they won't be able to wear too much else," said Lang, who lives in Bel Air.

If you happen to be selling shoes, this could be the weekend you live for.

Alex Rudolph, the owner of the Towson Bootery, a children's shoe store at The Shops at Kenilworth, does about 85 percent of his business just before school begins. "We get families coming in here with two, three or four kids," he said.

At the Stride Rite children's shoe store in Towson Town Center, business began picking up in July. But store manager Matt Jennings said that more parents are waiting later in the season to buy shoes. The store still expects to draw 20 percent of its yearly sales from back-to-school shopping. "This is our big rush," Jennings said.

Some parents are holding out for bargains, figuring retailers will eventually mark prices down - another factor contributing to the longer shopping season. They're shopping at discount stores such as Wal-Mart and buying school supplies from stores such as Staples.

Brenda Hughes was looking at Billabong and Roxy T-shirts at Pacific Sunwear in Towson this week, with her daughter Katelyn Simmons, 12, and her friend Rachel Schultz, 12.

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She said that she plans to spend about $300 school shopping but that price will definitely make a difference. "I am definitely looking for sales," she said. "You have to, these days."

The good news for retailers is that the recent tax break should give families extra money for school shopping, analysts said.

And some kids are still shopping the old-fashioned way, buying everything before the school year begins.

Leah Toutsis, 16, figures she'll be too busy with cheerleading and studying to shop once school starts. Also, her grandmother, Annette Karas, is paying for a shopping spree. So, she'll buy everything before the first day of school.

The 11th-grader at Dulaney High School was in Pacific Sunwear trying on jeans, sweaters and cropped T-shirts. She's a little worried that she might buy something that's not so popular. But she's figuring her fashion sense is safe enough.

"Junior year is so busy with SATs, looking at colleges and studying," she said. "I need to do all the shopping now so I can be serious when school starts."


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