NEW YORK — There is light at the end of the tunnel.

Junior retail executives, especially edgy after last year’s teen spending withdrawal, are peppering the 2003 back-to-school season with enhanced marketing to drive customers back into their stores.

An economy growing in fits and starts and shoppers uninspired by the lack of new styles joined forces over the past year to create a challenging retail scene. However, teen stores are looking for better times this back-to-school season and are taking many actions in hope that customers, who are expected to pump $14 billion into the economy this year on girls and boys b-t-s selling, according to the National Retail Federation, will be at their stores.

After last year’s bummer b-t-s selling, retailers have been forced to find new and creative ways — from repositioning the brand to new advertising campaigns — to drive traffic in the ultra-competitive world of teen retailing.

In addition, retailers are hoping the timing of the $13 billion tax credit checks from Uncle Sam this month to more than 25 million families will add a jolt to teen buying.

“Retailers are making modifications to their marketing plans and are looking for the most effective campaign to drive sales and traffic in the stores,” said Dawn Stoner, specialty retailing analyst with Pacific Growth Equities.

With consumers still minding their purse strings, Stoner said the key for retailers this fall is to rise above the promotional fray to communicate that their fall lineup is new and different in an attempt to compel teens to pick up some merchandise.

Still, with many retailers reporting fall trends that are building on the spring-summer hits like cargo pants and miniskirts, Stoner said another way for stores to differentiate themselves is through shopping environment, customer service and value positioning.

The next few months are almost as important as the holiday selling season for teen retailers. According to a survey by the NRF, families with school-age children will spend $451 on b-t-s items this year, up from $422 spent last year.

Dana Telsey, a retail analyst with Bear Stearns, said she is expecting to see more advertising and creative marketing campaigns like Gap’s ads featuring Madonna and Missy Elliot, as well as more exclusivity in products, like Hot Topic’s rock T-shirts, to drive traffic.She is forecasting junior retailers to perform better this fall than last, when same-store sales fell 1.7 percent in July, 1.5 percent in August and 4.7 percent in September, Telsey said.

Still, retail observers said if companies can build on the recent sales momentum and clean inventory levels, b-t-s stand a chance of a passing grade.

Dallas-based Gadzooks, which went to an all-girls format in July, will offer an expanded apparel offering, shoes, accessories, cosmetics, fragrance and swimwear. The store carries such apparel lines as Candie’s, Bongo, Dollhouse, Hot Kiss and Lucky Brand.

The retailer plans to introduce two major marketing tools in an expanded print campaign for b-t-s in an effort to drive traffic and let customers know about its new format, fresh merchandise and expanded categories, said Paula Masters, president and chief merchandising officer.

Both promotions will be supported by e-mail blasts. The first is an invitation to the new store, encrusted with the company’s new tag line “girl tools” with offerings of six different discounts. The other is an bulk reply card at the center of its magazine ads that reads on the front “Gadzooks has a new look you’ll love, and an offer you can’t refuse” and the other side offers a dollar amount off the total purchase.

“If they shopped [with us] in the past or like what they see in the ad, she will hopefully say I have to go,” Masters said. “With these, we hope to drive a lot of customers in and bring customers back.”

While Gadzooks is in a transitional mode and has said it does not expect to meet its sales plans this b-t-s with its young men’s gone, Masters said she hopes for a gradual improvement, helped by new styles and different interpretation of old ones. Key looks this fall are military, rocker chic, short black skirts and pinstripe pants, as well as leisurewear and activewear.

On the other hand, Pacific Sunwear of California is entering the b-t-s season with momentum, as it heads into July with year-to-date comps up 13.3 percent at PacSun and up more than 30 percent at its younger Demo division.Greg Weaver, chairman and chief executive officer, said he attributes PacSun’s increased focus on its successful young woman’s business over the past year-and-a-half. That attention has bled into other categories like footwear and accessories, and Weaver said the Anaheim-based retailer this fall is now more focused on selling outfits to its female clientele.

“We have our sales staff geared up to wardrobe the girl, pushing for higher average dollar sales and units per transaction,” said Weaver, noting that teen girls tend to buy an entire outfit in one trip. “Our focus is on maximizing the sale to the young girl when she is in the store.”

He also said he feels good about the merchandise assortment for b-t-s, saying it is better than last year’s mix.

“I think we missed some business last year in zipped hooded fleece and were insufficient in a couple of brands which we stocked up on,” Weaver said.

While Gap scored an advertising hit by landing Madonna and Missy Elliott to star in its fall campaign, American Eagle Outfitters has hired Spike Lee and his agency SpikeDDB to direct its TV spot for the b-t-s season. The 15- and 30-second spots, which will air this month and next on cable stations like MTV and Comedy Central, will feature a voice-over by a slam poet while symmetric, split-screen images from the past and present highlight AE’s Reissue Collection.

Richard Claremen, president of Self Esteem, said retailers are becoming aggressive in their promotions and marketing.

“Price is everything and seems to be the M.O. today,” he said. “Whoever has the cheaper price is working in the department store world.”

That being said, he expects the b-t-s season to be strong this year, noting there are a number of good trends, including the retro/vintage looks, monograms and neon colors.

The back-to-school season is here and retailers are banking on these trends.

Cargo pants
Vintage graphic Ts
Pinstripe pants
Velour hookups
Rocker-inspired Ts
Studded belts
Bomber jackets

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