NEW YORK — The annual ritual of shopping for back-to-school clothing might leave something to be desired for retailers, according to some analysts.

Rising energy prices and interest rates and the merchandise mix are among the linchpin issues.

“With mall traffic trending flat to last year and temperatures running above normal, one should not expect a huge surge in b-t-s/fall purchases,” Thomas Filandro, a retail analyst at Susquehanna Financial Group, wrote in a research note. “It appears Express’ early selling trends are less than robust.” However, “Pink [a subbrand at Victoria’s Secret], has an assortment keenly focused on college-aged girls with a robust influence of dorm wear.”

Todd Slater, a retail analyst at Lazard Freres, raised concerns about the merchandise mix. “The b-t-s product at Abercrombie & Fitch, delivered about two weeks earlier than last year, does not appear to be selling,” he wrote in a research note. “This could be due to more ‘wear-later’ product such as wool blend V-neck sweaters and sherpa-lined canvas outerwear, and a less compelling denim offering.

“Mere coincidence?” he added. “With Target reducing its July sales guidance by a point and American Eagle running a circumspect 15 percent e-mail promotion, this could be more than just a mere coincidence. While we do not foresee a second-quarter earnings shortfall at AE, the last time it ran an incremental e-mail coupon, it lowered earnings guidance two weeks later.”

A survey by NPD Group found that consumers will begin shopping for the season later this year and will spend about the same as last year.

“The consumer doesn’t have more money or more kids in school than last year,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group. “There’s no hot item, particularly in apparel. Only accessories and footwear has real interest. Electronics is good because kids continue to upgrade. That business is stealing dollar share from apparel.”

Gas prices and worries about the economy will give consumers pause, he said.

“Everything is costing more money,” Cohen stated. “This year the pendulum is positioned to slow down, if not stop. Consumers are deferring and slowing down the pace of their spending. They may buy the same number of units but they’ll spend fewer dollars. Retailers will have to reduce inventory.”

This story first appeared in the July 24, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Teen-oriented chains will be challenged to present fashion-right merchandise at the right price. “Kids are looking for individuality,” Cohen said. “They’re not interested in looking like clones. They’re looking for style.”

The National Retail Federation held an opposing view. Spending by the average family with school-aged children will rise 19 percent to $527 from $444 in 2005, according to a survey conducted for the NRF by BIGresearch. The organization cited aggressive b-t-s promotions and pent-up consumer demand as reasons for the increases. Total spending is estimated to rise 31 percent to $17.6 billion, up from $13.4 billion last year, driven by demand for gadgets, including personal computers, iPods and mobile phones, the NRF said.

Mark Lilien, a consultant at the Retail Technology Group, said: “Retailing is a mature business. A reasonable forecast is that retailers getting sales increases of 2 to 3 percent will be feeling very good about themselves. There are exceptions, such as Aéropostale and Abercrombie & Fitch, but 99 percent of the publicly held retailers in America would be thrilled to get a 4 percent increase.”

Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the NRF, defended the findings. “It’s a very straightforward consumer survey….We think retail sales are moderating, but for b-t-s and the holiday season, people spend more,” he said.

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