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Summer's Here, and So is Back-to-School Shopping Season

(This article was originally published Sunday.) By Karen Talley Summer is barely here and it is already time to head back to school--shopping, that is. Young people wearing flip flops and bright cut-offs and tops are starting to be met in the mall by more somber colors and longer pants, ushering in the annual back-to-school buying season. At a Macy's Inc. (M) one recent morning, full-price navy blue Levis and brown and beige tee-shirts were lining the main aisle, more in keeping with fall looks. Nearby, tanks and white pants were going for 40% off. Target Corp. (TGT) had up to 70% off sleeveless shirts and shorts, while a manager said the retailer began putting out back-to-school merchandise a week or two ago, and would likely be finished doing so by the end of next week. A J.C. Penney Co. (JCP) was still flush with summer merchandise, with nary an autumn offering to be found. The department store has been having trouble moving product since it virtually dropped promotions, and a lack of buying may have played a role in Penney's abundance of summer wear. The early arrival of fall merchandise, an annual rite as retailers try to outgun each other, is still a bit jarring to some shoppers. "I wish they'd wait a scooch more," said Pamela Cappello of Hicksville, N.Y. "We haven't even been on our summer vacation yet." After Black Friday and Cyber Monday, back-to-school "is the number three seasonal occasion our customers shop us," said Paul Okimoto, marketing vice president at RadioShack Corp. (RSH). The company will start advertising next week, "sooner than in prior years, because we know consumers are starting to think about their electronics purchases long before returning to campus," Okimoto said. RadioShack this year will be focusing on college students because they are a more profitable audience and RadioShack's products skew to this group, Okimoto said. In addition to smartphones, RadioShack sells ancillary electronics products like cables and chargers. In addition to apparel and pens and pencils, consumer electronics play a major role in back-to-school buying, and the older the student the more gear purchased, such as personal computers and smartphones. Younger students are also increasingly using technology in their classwork, making consumer electronics' piece of the back-to-school pie even bigger. Other stores are also in the spirit of things. Teen retailer American Eagle Outfitters Inc. (AEO) announced a back-to-school contest whose winner will be featured in the company's spring promotional campaign. Office supplies retailer Staples Inc. (SPLS) this week rolled out products including binders in new, patterned designs and is offering discounts through its "Back-to-School Savings Pass." Retailers might be doing well for themselves to get merchandise front and center because there is plenty at stake. Nearly $70 billion was projected by the National Retail Federation to be spent on back-to-school and college merchandise last year. That puts the July and August period ahead of all other holidays expect Christmas, at $471.5 billion. The trade group has not yet made its projection for this year. But in an NRF survey of consumers with school-aged children, 80.4% said the U.S. economy will impact their school spending plans this year. The figure, while down from 86% in 2011, still suggests how the lion's share of consumers are feeling about their financial condition. "We've seen 23 straight months of year-over-year U.S. retail sales growth," said NRF spokeswoman Kathy Grannis. "But at the same time key factors like sentiment and consumers' overall attitude about a strong economy are slipping." In fact, there may already be some cautionary signs. Summer inventories are "still rather robust for it being a week from July 4," said Eugene Fram, professor emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology's E. Philip Saunders College of Business. "There are few 'holes'" in merchandise offerings. While there is no hard evidence that more back-to-school buying will be done online, indications are that it certainly won't slow. Retailers that focus on apparel and other in-demand categories have seen 16% growth in online sales during the second quarter, according to Mercent Corp., which supplies software that helps retailers sell on the Web. From laptops to sneakers, back-to-school buying "has actually seen a bit of a shift to online, just like everything," said Doug Hart, partner in BDO USA's retail practice. "It's no longer a just-going-to-the-store type of event." There is mixed opinion about whether back-to-school is a good indicator of how consumers will spend during the Christmas season. What's bought is a good bellwether for what's hot in terms of merchandise. But there is enough of a gap between the fall months and the Christmas buying period for economic conditions and sentiment to shift. Write to Karen Talley at karen.talley@dowjones.com;

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