Retailers, Start Your Engines: Back-To-School Is on the Horizon

Experts Expect Denim, Track Jackets to Fuel Sales After Grim First Quarter

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Retailers gear up for back-to-school.
Retailers gear up for back-to-school. Credit: Business Wire

The July 4th fireworks may be over, but the retail fireworks are only about to begin as stores gear up for a back-to-school selling season that's all the more crucial after recent weakness.

The coming weeks should see fresh campaigns from the likes of JC Penney, Old Navy and Kohl's. Though all three brands told Ad Age they will market the back-to-school season, they have yet to divulge specific plans.

Sales for the back-to-school period, the second-most important shopping time of the year, are expected to rise a modest 2.6% over last year, according to eMarketer. After a lackluster holiday season and a first-quarter bloodbath across retail, clothing retailers in particular have their work cut out as consumers shy away from apparel in favor of experiences and electronics.

According to Kantar Retail, a shopper specialist firm, roughly three out of 10 consumers plan to spend more money on back-to-school this year, while half plan to spend about the same amount. Mary Brett Whitfield, senior VP at Kantar, noted that Walmart, Amazon and dollar stores are on the top of most shopping lists for school supplies. A spokeswoman for Amazon said the retailer's Back-to-School and Off-to-College stores will go live on Wednesday.

Last week, Moody's changed its outlook on the retail industry from "positive" to "stable," citing weakness in apparel sellers, discounters and department stores.

Retailers and analysts are betting that novelty will help turn things around in clothing.

"We are cautiously optimistic for back-to-school sales as we anticipate more broad-based consumer acceptance of fashion trends should fuel sales as consumers update their wardrobes," wrote Richard Jaffe, a retail analyst at ‎Stifel Nicolaus, in a recent research note.

He added that in recent months, consumers have not gotten on board with fashion trends like wide-leg pants and bohemian styles, but that could change as more shoppers adopt the looks and such styles gain widespread acceptance.

Denim will be a big trend this year, including updated lengths and softer fabrics, according to Kathy Bradley-Riley, senior VP-merchandising at fashion trend forecasting firm The Doneger Group. Already, American Eagle Outfitters leads its new clothing section online with a host of cropped jeans.

Experts expect other popular items to include Victorian-style blouses with lace and crocheted knits, bodysuits and track jackets.

"Although it's a tough environment, [consumers are] reacting to newness," Ms. Bradley-Riley said.

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