Streams

Back To School, but Not Packing Plastic

Monday, August 23, 2010

The annual reappearance of Back To School signs in shop windows is a buzzkill for kids everywhere. And this year, parents aren't so excited about it either.

"The money's not there," said Carlene Burgin, who was window shopping for clothing and supplies for her 5-year-old in Herald Square. "I have to stretch it to buy whatever else I need."

Dara White said her son hasn't grown much in the past year -- "thank goodness for that. I'll just use some of the things we have already from last year."

That's the kind of behavior analysts expect from parents this season.

"They're tending to buy what they need and waiting until the school year gets started to buy anything else," said Wendy Liebmann, CEO of WSL Strategic Retail, a Manhattan firm that tracks consumer trends.

If stores do sell more this year, she predicts wealthy parents will be the reason why.

"But even there they're looking for good value, not necessarily the most expensive things on the floor. On the other end, lower income shoppers, middle income shoppers are hugely unsettled," Liebmann said.

She believes most parents won't start spending on non-essentials until they're convinced the economy is definitely recovering.

Loretta Gendville owns Area Kids, a hip, Brooklyn-based chain. She said one affordable item that's doing well this season is re-usable vinyl sandwich bags, priced at $8 to $11, to take the place of disposables.

"People really like the designs. And you're saving all those plastic bags from going into the landfills. They definitely in the long run will save you money," Gendville said.

Gendville said when the economy faltered, there was a backlash against the $50 onesie for toddlers. She started stocking clothes at a broader range of prices. And the strategy has paid off -- her chain has just added two new Manhattan outlets.

After the December holidays, back-to-school is the second most important period for retailers. This year, the National Retail Federation predicts sales of more than $55 billion.

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