NEW YORK — Adult shoppers, who couldn’t resist early, deep discounts on fall fashions, drove strong dollar-volume growth in August, instead of children and teens fueling back-to-school sales, according to a representative sample of 1,000 U.S. consumers.

That was a key finding of the Consumer Mind Reader, a bimonthly survey conducted during the four weeks ended Sept. 2.

"Department and apparel stores showed a weak back-to-school performance, but they made up for it through purchasing by adults, who took advantage of deep discounts to buy clothing for themselves," noted C. Britt Beemer, founder and chairman at America’s Research Group, the Charleston, S.C.-based consumer marketing consultancy which conducts the Consumer Mind Reader poll.

And while there’s talk of a possible b-t-s shopping wave this month, after kids have been influenced by what their classmates are wearing, this year’s action is over, according to the Consumer Mind Reader. "Roughly 17 percent of the people we surveyed said they’d finished their b-t-s shopping by Aug. 1, and 85 percent were done before Labor Day weekend," Beemer said Tuesday. "This is a significant change from five years ago, when 45 percent still had back-to-school shopping to do on Labor Day weekend."

Discount stores captured the most action in August, as expected, but interestingly, the format’s share of shoppers this season — 80.5 percent — was off 3.7 percentage points from the 84.2 percent share it won in August 2000 and was flat as compared with a year ago. Asked why, Beemer responded, "Kmart isn’t as strong, and Target has alienated some people with its policy announced last Christmas: no receipt, no return or exchange. Our numbers show around 5.5 percent of consumers are mad as hell and aren’t shopping at Target anymore."

This year’s b-t-s crowd spent $99.35 per capita at discount stores, up 5 percent from $94.51 last August, and up 11 percent from $89.41 in August 2000.

By comparison, the Consumer Mind Reader showed 23.3 percent of those surveyed shopped at an apparel specialty store in August, spending $20.83 per person, or 79 percent more than the $11.64 spent per capita last August, by 16.9 percent of that panel, and 49 percent more than the $14.01 expended by 21.9 percent of the group two years ago.Department stores managed a spurt in transaction size, but lost their share of shoppers, compared with August 2000. This time, 22.7 percent said they’d shopped a major department store, spending $24.77 per capita. That marked share and spending gains versus the 19.1 percent who spent $19.40 per person last August, but a decline from the 24.4 percent share of shoppers who visited a department store in August 2000, when they spent $19.29 per capita.

More data disclosed Tuesday projected decent growth this holiday season, following a better-than-expected performance in 2001. The National Retail Federation is forecasting 2002 holiday retail sales will increase 4 percent over last year, when they rose 5.6 percent. In 2000, holiday retail sales gained 4.3 percent. NRF defines holiday sales as the November-December period at general merchandisers, clothing, accessories, home furnishings, electronics, appliance, sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores.

"Consumers this year have been cautious in their spending, but nevertheless continue to bolster retailers’ performance," said NRF chief economist Rosalind Wells, in a statement. "NRF sees the economy growing around 3.5 percent in the second half of this year, which should be a solid enough environment for reasonably good holiday sales.We anticipate that home-related merchandise and leisure goods will do well this holiday season, and that apparel demand should pick up, [a category] where many consumers have postponed purchases." The first installment of the 2002 NRF Holiday Consumer Intentions & Actions Survey, conducted by BIGresearch, found 62.6 percent of consumers plan to spend the same amount for holiday as last year; 29.5 percent plan to spend less, and 7.9 percent more.

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