By  on August 6, 2009

With merchandise ready to hit the floors and marketing campaigns in place, retailers are hoping back-to-school can lift them out of the doldrums.

After a disappointing b-t-s season last year and arguably the most difficult 12 months they’ve ever experienced, retailers are eager to reel teens into their stores and entice them with fresh trends, cutting-edge marketing strategies and in-store events.

However, observers say many retailers are choosing to play it too safe this season by offering too many basics. This is a concern for many b-t-s shoppers — 27 percent of the 1,500 teens and parents surveyed in WSL Strategic Retail’s “How America Shops” study said they are ready to splurge. And of the items they want to splurge on, clothing came in first on the list, followed by a vacation, a night out and decorating the home. And, 48 percent of shoppers interviewed for the survey said they could afford to splurge on something. However, if they were to spend, they want it to be something “different and special.” Furthermore, 50 percent of the teens surveyed said they would rather save their money for that one special item, rather than spend it on many less expensive ones.

Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, thinks smart retailers are closely watching teen and parent shopping patterns and applying it to their b-t-s expectations.

“We are seeing that some are buying a little each week and spreading it out over several paychecks,” she said of shoppers. “But there’s also an equal percentage of people who don’t do their back-to-school shopping until right before school starts.”

Based on results from the “How America Shops” survey, Corlett said shoppers’ mind-sets have certainly changed this year — likely due to the financial stresses many people are feeling from the recession. Corlett said she found it surprising that only about 12 percent of the adults surveyed said they actually enjoy shopping for their kids for b-t-s.

“For some families, shopping has just become aggravating,” she said. “The recession has really put a damper on the idea of shopping.”

As a result, the survey found 40 percent of shoppers said they will seek out less expensive stores for b-t-s shopping this year. A few of the favorites mentioned include Wal-Mart, Dollar General and Family Dollar.

Sapna Shah and Lisa Walters, founders and principals of Retail Eye Partners, an independent equity research and consulting firm, said they are hearing many people will shop much closer to the time that school begins. And, in some states, like California, a number of schools do not start until as late as Sept. 10.

“With the state of this economy, fewer people are buying well in advance,” Shah said. “Things are slower at the malls and there are fewer teens there to buy things.”

However, on a positive note, Walters said teens do still see shopping as a major form of entertainment, even though they may spend less overall and are looking for a great deal.

“Back-to-school is much more fashion focused now than it was,” Walters said. “We will see a less preppy look, less Americana and more plaid, neon, rebel, rocker looks.”

Walters said overall, she believes retailers have become much more focused on the fashions teens want to wear now, and shopping for b-t-s will be less about brand and more about price. She said while she sees stores such as Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. and Hot Topic Inc. heading in the right directions trendwise, stores such as American Eagle Outfitters Inc. may have a harder time since the chain is so well-known for its preppy look. That said, since price is such a driving factor, teens may be driven into American Eagle to buy jeans if there’s a great deal to be had. American Eagle reported an 11 percent decline in comparable-store sales results in June after struggling with merchandising and pricing.

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