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It’s Back-to-School Season, and Stores Are Studying Hard

Hackensack, N.J. — At this time of year, Ken Wrisley, who owns a 1,200-square-foot store in downtown Oakland, N.J., has the same mission as the chief executive officers of major retailers:

Wrisley has to bring his “A” game to the crucial back-to-school shopping season.

“It’s our Christmas,” said Wrisley, owner of Gibling’s Footwear, which specializes in fitting and selling children’s shoes. The two weeks at the end of August and the first two weeks of September are his busiest time of the year.

Retailers big and small are expected to work hard this year for consumer dollars, as parents continue to be careful about spending. Americans will spend $72.5 billion this month and in September to outfit their children for elementary school, high school and college, according to projections by the National Retail Federation, which every year surveys parents about their spending intentions.

Heading into this year’s back-to-school selling season, parents told the retail group that they plan to spend an average of $634.78 on clothing and supplies for school-age children under age 17, or 7.8 percent less than last year.

Last August was a particularly good month for back-to-school retailers, as pent-up demand left over from cautious spending habits following the recession pushed school spending estimates to increase by a whopping 14 percent compared to the previous year.

NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said he believes parents who splurged for big-ticket items such as a laptop last year don’t need to buy those items this year, resulting in lower budgets for school supplies.

Shay said that while the federation’s survey showed consumers plan to spend less this year than the previous year, spending levels are still much more robust than during the recession. The estimate for average spending this year is the second-highest on record in the decade the federation has been conducting the survey.

But retailers are still expecting consumers to be price-conscious this year, and have ramped up plans for special sales and promotions to draw shoppers.

Research firm Experian Marketing Services analyzed online searches related to back-to-school and reported recently that “sales” and “sales flier” are the most common terms connected with back-to-school searches currently.

“Definitely you can see the price sensitivity on the part of the consumer,” said Bill Tancer, the general manager of global research at Experian Marketing Services. “Consumers are looking for that best price,” he said. “It is a mission of the consumer to really stretch their dollar this back-to-school season.”

Retailers, Tancer said, also tried to jump-start the season this year by aggressively pushing back-to-school sales and special offers in July. This year, he said, 41 percent of retailers with back-to-school promotions sent out their email offers in July, compared with only 22 percent in 2011.

“As retailers do that more and more, we will probably see the behavior pattern of consumers change more and more,” Tancer said, with bargain-seeking consumers shopping earlier.

Toys R Us has seen an early positive response to its back-to-school offerings, driven by several licensing properties, including backpacks and lunch kits related to the hit kids movie Despicable Me 2, according to Jamie Uitdenhowen, vice president and general merchandise manager, learning and seasonal, for the toy retailer.

Toys R Us rolled out its back-to-school merchandise a few days earlier this year, at the end of June. While the Wayne, N.J.-based retailer doesn’t release back-to-school results as a separate category, the way it does for the nine holiday weeks at the end of the year, Uitdenhowen said back-to-school sales “have grown in volume every year for at least six or seven years.”

“July and August aren’t overall big-dollars months for our company compared to the balance of the year, but back-to-school is a very key area for us,” Uitdenhowen said.

Sales of licensed back-to-school products, such as Disney pencil cases or Despicable Me backpacks, also are a good early indicator of which toys will be hot at Christmas time. “It does help us reinforce some of the big bets we’ve made on properties” in preparing for the holiday season.

Housewares retailer Bed Bath & Beyond has made back-to-college shopping a key part of its marketing strategy for more than a decade. The company begins dorm furnishings promotions in late spring every year, hands out shopping checklists for students and parents, and lets parents pick up purchases at stores near their children’s colleges. Sales at Bed Bath are somewhat even by quarter.

Back-to-school season increasingly has become the exclusive territory of national retail chains, which invest heavily in advertising and promotions tied to school clothes and supplies. Those ads pay off, according to the Experian Marketing Services report, which found that the top seven back-to-school-related Internet searches as of last week were for Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Office Max, Sears, Staples and Office Depot.

Before the proliferation of big-box stores, back-to-school shopping usually meant visits to one or more local merchants, with many shopping areas having one or more children’s clothing stores, a children’s shoe store, and a local stationery store that sold notebooks, pencils, binders and other supplies now sold by office supply chains.

Kids’ shoe stores are one of the last vestiges of those days, and the owners say they are kept in business by parents who want personal attention not found in the chains and who want to make sure the shoes fit properly.

At the Ped-Agree shoe store in Wyckoff, N.J., sisters Cathie Mattei and Luanne Rush are keeping alive a business that was started in 1895 by their cobbler grandfather, Vincent Badagliacca. “There are fewer and fewer of us every year,” said Mattei. She said she and her sister are seeing a shift in shopping habits. “People prefer going to independent shoe stores rather than the malls,” said Mattei. “We’re finding a big trend toward that.”

Wrisley, at Gibling’s in Oakland, has operated his store since 1986, and said community support has kept the store viable.

He began gearing up for the back-to-school season by holding his annual summer clearance sale and fall merchandise preview. After the clearance sale, it will be the peak back-to-school season at the store. Wrisley estimated that he does about 20 percent of his sales volume during the roughly four-week back-to-school window.

The Oakland Gibling’s store is an offshoot of the original Gibling’s, which opened on Main Street in Ramsey, N.J., in 1954 and is now in Mahwah, N.J.

Barbara Heschle, owner of the Mahwah Gibling’s since 1976, bought the store after working there starting as a teenager. The arrival of big-box stores and online shoe shopping have dramatically changed the business, Heschle said. A shoe sales representative recently told her “everybody — big guy or mom-and-pop — is asking ‘Where is this business going?’ “ she said.

“We do have a nice base of customers, but we need a bigger base,” she said.