Mall Stores Sing Back-to-School Blues

Retailers Report Dismal September Sales Amid Credit Crunch, High Gas Prices

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CHICAGO ( -- This fall's economic woes haven't just kept families from eating out. They're not buying back-to-school clothes either.
While many top retailers were hit with weak same-store sales, luxury stores were immune from the downward trend.
While many top retailers were hit with weak same-store sales, luxury stores were immune from the downward trend.

Gap, in the midst of a two-year downward spiral, was down 7%. Wet Seal, which has made great strides in the teen market in recent years, was down 7% as well. Mall darlings American Eagle and Bebe also fell. Macy's announced a nearly 3% decrease in same-store sales from the comparable period a year-earlier. Dillard's dropped 7%.

Not all the news was bad. Saks' same-store sales rose nearly 8% in September, and Nordstrom was up more than 3%. Notably, these stores appeal to a well-heeled clientele generally insulated from the high gas prices and credit crunch that have so dogged middle-class families this fall.

Weather woes
Warm weather didn't help either. Carl Steidtmann, chief economist for Deloitte & Touche, said, "It's hard to sell a sweater when it's 80 degrees outside. We had warm weather that's gone into October. So I don't expect those numbers to be much better."

A bad September means more than just one bad month. September is the end of the crucial back-to-school buying period, second only to the Christmas rush in importance. With a tepid holiday shopping season predicted by the National Retail Federation (a 4% increase over last year), things are looking bleak indeed for the mall.
Who's up and who's down
Retail same-store sales figures for September.
Sak's American Eagle
Neiman Marcus Group Dillard's
Kohl's Macy's
Nordstrom Wet Seal
Target Gap

The situation is only somewhat better at discount stores. Kohl's reported that same-store sales increased 5.9% for the month of September, but sales fell 3.2%, particularly disappointing following the release of the much-lauded Simply Vera by Vera Wang. JC Penney will release September sales later today. Penney's recently has launched a number of proprietary lines, upgraded its lingerie brand and introduced mini Sephora stores within its stores. Another major initiative: opening stand-alone locations.

Hope for discounters?
Still, Mr. Steidtmann said discount chains are in a better position to weather the troubled economy. "The discounters have done a much better job of upgrading the quality of their fashion offerings, and in hard times, as consumers feel more pinched, they become much more price-sensitive, which always works to the advantage of price-driven retailers."

Another problem for mall stores is their aging surroundings. The bulk of American malls were constructed in the 1980s and 1990s, and it's starting to show, Mr. Steidtmann said. Teens have increasingly shown distaste for malls, favoring boutique and stand-alone stores.
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