Whole Foods

It did not look like back-to-school madness in a lot of retail stores last year.

Sales had fallen 5.1% among retailers, not including the industry giant Wal-Mart, which recently stopped releasing monthly figures. Consumers are cutting back on non-essentials, which means that traditional activities like buying new clothes for back-to-school might be put off for months or even another year, as parents try to get back their financial footing.

Teen retailers saw the hardest hit, especially clothing stores. One reason why goes like this: Because teens have often already “hit their growth spurt,” they don’t always want new clothes because they need them size-wise, but because they want something newer and “cooler.”

This may explain why the uber-fashionable and expensive stores took the hardest hits – Abercrombie & Fitch Co. dropped by 28% – while discounted name-brand merchandise available at TJ Maxx has actually seen an uptick of 2.3%.

Department stores are also having a rough time selling back-to-school clothes, supplies, dorm furniture, and the like. J.C. Penney reported a 12.3% decline and Macy’s dropped 10.7%, while Target, with cheaper alternatives to similar products, still saw a decline of 6.5%.

A correlated problem is that retailers are cutting back on their staff, which means back-to-school teens and college students are having trouble finding work. No work means no discretionary income for that new back-to-school outfit or the little extras like a better laundry basket.

For right now, buyers are making do with what they’ve got.

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