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Back-to-school sales find customers wary

Navi Gregory, 5, reaches for folders from his mother, Stephanie Gregory, as his brother Cristian, 2, waits patiently in the front of the cart while shopping Tuesday at the Pinellas Park Wal-Mart.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Navi Gregory, 5, reaches for folders from his mother, Stephanie Gregory, as his brother Cristian, 2, waits patiently in the front of the cart while shopping Tuesday at the Pinellas Park Wal-Mart.

Florida isn't staging a sales tax holiday for back-to-school shopping this year, but that hasn't stopped JCPenney and Beall's department stores from advertising their own "Florida tax relief" sales.

Retailers big and small are scrambling for something to trigger a sense of urgency after state politicians spent a decade training shoppers to wait until school supplies and apparel were tax-free at this time of year.

Bigger penny-pinchers than they have been in years, shoppers already are routinely asking clerks when this year's tax holiday kicks off, and several shoppers interviewed Tuesday were surprised to learn there won't be one.

"I need any help I can get stretching a dollar, so this was an especially bad time to take it away," said Cindy Runion, a 48-year-old mother of two laid off from a teaching assistant job in April.

Back-to-school is second only to Christmas for apparel retailers who trade in children's clothes. But this summer the economy is causing some big changes in a season that last year was one of the weakest in years.

"This year looks more challenging for retailers than last year even though there may be some signs the recession" is beginning to wind down, said Deborah Weinswig, retail analyst for Citi Investment Research. "People are shopping for needs, not wants."

The National Retail Federation forecasts back-to-school sales will shrink 13 percent to $17.4 billion, down from $20.1 billion. A Citi research survey found 79 percent of shoppers, up sharply from 45 percent in 2007, plan to spend less than $400.

Florida retailers are happy that legislators moved the start of the school year later into August. But so far retailers say tepid sales are just beginning to pick up after back-to-school promotions were launched last weekend.

"This weekend will be big, but the weekend after that will be even bigger," said Rob Goding, district manager for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Stores stocked up with less inventory this time, so they will feel less pressure to slash prices to dump unsold leftovers. Instead, many stores bulked up on items at what are supposed to be more compelling regular prices.

Beall's for instance, is carrying $5 T-shirts that went for $7.99 a year ago and $14.99 skinny jeans that were $20.

"We've gone further this year to not only have the right looks but be priced right," said Gwen Bennett, vice president of advertising for the Bradenton-based department store chain.

Thrift stores that specialize in reselling donated secondhand goods report their back-to-school business has become a big deal.

"We increased our inventory for children's clothes by 30 percent this time," said Preston Hicks, assistant manager of the Boley Centers Neighborhood store in St. Petersburg. "Business is good and extremely big on our dollar days, Sundays and Mondays."

Luz Negroni, a 37-year-old single mother of three with a nursing job, changed her back-to-school strategy when she heard there would be no tax holiday again this year. The state suspended it last year, too.

"I started looking earlier for sales and hitting the thrift shops and secondhand shops," she said, leaving Skechers in Tyrone Square Mall. "I saved about $1,500. Now I'm done."

It has been a season of change, too, for Therese Lea, a 45-year-old St. Petersburg mother of five who chose to be a stay-at-home mom after getting out of her house cleaning business.

Her family downsized by selling a home they had used as a piggy bank in better times in favor of a rented townhouse to pay down debts. Her two college-age kids are living at home.

"We're spending 10 percent less on back-to-school, but only partly because of the economy," she said.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727)-893-8252.

Back-to-school sales find customers wary 08/11/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 5:13pm]

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