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Retailers Brace for Lackluster B-T-S

Retailers aren't likely to get high marks this back-to-school season.

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NEW YORK — Retailers aren’t likely to get high marks this back-to-school season.

With early reads less than reassuring, most storeowners are prepared for flat comparisons or slight declines during the critical selling period.

“The reality is that the average price point could be less than last year,” said Scott Collins, GMM of DTLR. “When you couple that with people buying fewer pairs of shoes, it’s a recipe for disaster.”

Still, most believe that footwear will be a relative bright spot during the upcoming season, outpacing sales of other b-t-s items, such as apparel and electronics.

“Footwear is going to be a stride ahead of many other industries during back-to-school,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group. “People either look at shoes as a necessity, or a passion that they’re not willing to give up. But people are going to be buying two pairs instead of four, and they’re going to be buying closer to need.”

NPD expects small negative declines of 2 percent to 3 percent for the majority of footwear retailers, while a select few might see 1 percent to 2 percent growth. “It will be challenging to see any gains, considering there will be fewer pairs [of shoes] purchased across the board,” Cohen said.

The International Council of Shopping Centers projects that footwear sales will decline by 1 percent during the months of July through September, versus a 2 percent uptick in last year’s b-t-s season. September will be the best month of the three, based on an easier sales comparison to last year, said ICSC’s chief economist, Michael Niemira, but he added that shoe demand will be choppy throughout the period.

Tough comparisons against last July and August will likely take a toll, as will the absence of stimulus checks, which padded consumers’ pockets in mid-2008. “Back-to-school spending last year was not spectacular, but most shopping occurred before the economy took a nosedive in September and October,” said Ellen Davis, VP at the National Retail Federation. Although the NRF will not release its official b-t-s survey results until later this week, Davis predicts that spending this season will be “flat or perhaps down somewhat from 2008.”

Davis also expects the survey results to demonstrate a consumer move to buying need-based footwear. “I expect parents to focus on more practical buys,” she said.

In preparation for that, Alan Paulenoff, EVP of the Nina Kids division, has adjusted his assortment to include more versatile styles. “People can’t just buy a pair for every outfit anymore,” he said. “Shoes need to be multipurpose. Our school shoes have a little twist to them to make them dressier, so she can wear them to church or a party, too.”

Others note that this b-t-s season will include more buy-now, wear-now purchases, particularly in the juniors’ market. “We still see customers remaining in sandals for back-to-school,” said Fred Kraft, DMM of shoes at The Bon-Ton Stores Inc., pointing to Rocket Dog and Skechers as key juniors’ brands. “We will move her from flat sandals to flat casuals and wedges as the cooler weather sets in.”

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