Sunday, August 31, 2008

Yes, it's back to school time again...

I said I wasn’t going to even mention back to school as a retail category, but here I am, unable to avoid it. My children get on the bus on Wednesday of this week. Yes, we spent money on school. And yes, we weren’t the only ones caught up in the hype despite our desire to stay on a budget.

I normally deny that I am at all moved by the calendar or invented retail "seasons." Just as bad as hearing Christmas music in the mall before Halloween is being hit with flyers and circulars for B2S specials while August is still in full swing and I’m still not done with the second of my three beach novels for the week. We typically try not to splurge on more than a new backpack or lunchbox and, as we moved to a new school system, some desk supplies required for each grade, but even that can be fun for the kids. The first two years we tried to get our school supply shopping done over the summer at all the fun, weird stationary stores in the little towns where we vacation. It’s nicer to have folders with college logos than the endless busy patterns and kittens from Target. But this year we didn’t get the list in time and, well, there are only so many varieties of file folders. So we hit the back to school forced march.

All summer I’ve been commenting on how much or how little I see people in retail stores. But there’s been a limit to my own retail research: I studiously avoided the mall until I had no choice (There were those three trips to the Genius Bar at the Apple Store, but that’s a story for another time.)

Media Post's Karl Greenburg reports that specialty retail stores are particularly hard hit this fall. Stores like the Gap are down, of course, but they were already feeling the pinch, as they say. Still, it was hard not to notice the difference in the mall: the Old Navy was strewn with clothes and long lines, but the Gap was relatively empty. The sales clerks looked forlorn as we walked by. Much of the kid retail, like the Limited 2 and TCP were hopping, as you’d expect, but the big department stores – from Macy’s to Sears – were relatively quiet. Let's hope the Gap's new celebrity-driven ad campaign can pull in some late fall shoppers who still need classics that last longer than the Old Navy "ten minute t-shirt," as it's called in my house.

On the other hand, despite my derision of the JC Penney and Sears campaigns to get teens to buy their clothes, the jaded teenager in my house noted that the JCPenny television ad that mimicked the Breakfast Club -- and the clothes it featured -- were, in her words, “not bad.” Apparently I was supposed to like it, too: "We knew parents would relate to it," says Chief Marketing Officer Mike Boylson. The ad also has a twist for today's tweens and teens: a remixed version of Simple Minds' Don't You (Forget About Me) from The Breakfast Club's soundtrack. The hook? “What’s old is new again.”

And unless my daughter develops a sudden need, I think I’m keeping my artic parka and Madonna gloves in the attic for a few more seasons, thanks.

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