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Yesterday, the government released retail sales figures for July. They weren't as bad as some had feared but they weren't pretty. And retailers are bracing for the worst as the all-important back-to-school shopping season gets underway. From Seattle, NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.
KAUFMAN: Back-to-school shopping is second only to Christmas for retail sales, and right now many retailers are just trying to survive. Consumers are in no mood to buy and when they do many are trading down, moving from full-price stores to discounters.
Discounters have lured in customers like Stephanie Broadbend(ph) and her daughter Ashley, who's in college. Yesterday, they were making their way through the aisles of a very noisy TJ Maxx store in suburban Seattle.
Ms. ASHLEY BROADBEND: I think that unless�I don't buy something unless I know what I'm going to do with it or I have to�like, an outfit, like, where to wear it.
KAUFMAN: And where are you buying it? Are you shopping at different stores that you might have? Your mom's shaking her head yes.
Ms. BROADBEND: Yeah, we shop at TJ Maxx and stores like Ross and stuff.
KAUFMAN: The National Retail Federation estimates that, per family, back-to-school sales will be down eight percent from last year, and 2008 wasn't exactly a banner year.
Patricia Edwards, an analyst at Storehouse Partners says the weak economy and tight credit are the main factors affecting back-to-school retail. But Edwards says the shopping experience isn't helping. As retailers try to cut costs, they've eliminated sales staff, they're reduced the amount of stuff they're carrying and, Edwards says, what's left isn't all that inspiring.
Ms. PATRICIA EDWARDS (Analyst, Storehouse Partners): The trends, especially for the teens, which is where the spending happens for back-to-school, they're the same. They only thing they've really added is plaid. And, you know, you go out, buy one or two plaid pieces of clothing and you're set.
KAUFMAN: The Retail Federation recently completed a survey in which four out of five consumers said the economy has changed their back-to-school spending plans. And, the group believes, this will be one of the worst fall shopping seasons in a generation.
Federation Vice President Ellen Davis says spending among college students is expected to be down dramatically. Far more students - 20 percent more, in fact - will be living at home, compared to the number two years ago.
Ms. ELLEN DAVIS (Vice President, The Retail Federation): When college students live with mom and dad, they're obviously not going to be going to the stores to buy home furnishings and home d�cor. So, you know, you don't need silverware, a microwave and extra long sheets. So, retailers, who might be selling some of those items, might find that supply outweighs demand, at least this year.
KAUFMAN: For college students and others who are shopping, Noreen Perrotta, an editor at Consumer Reports, says find out if your state is having a sales tax holiday - a period of time when you don't pay the tax. If you're buying a big-ticket item, like a computer, you can save a bundle. She adds the best deal on a computer may be at an unexpected place.
Ms. NOREEN PERROTTA (Editor, Consumer Reports): You may want to look into buying it on campus. You know, when my daughter went to college, we checked Apple.com, we checked Best Buy and we checked her campus text store, and the text store had the best price.
KAUFMAN: She adds one more shopping tip. This one applies to just about everything: go online and look for discount coupons. Two of her favorite sites are Retail Me Not and Coupon Cabin.
But Chris(ph) Curtis offers a very different kind of advice. She was also bargain hunting at TJ Maxx. As the economy has soured, she said, her family has been donating more things to charity.
Ms. CHRIS CURTIS: Whenever you pare down, you realize what you don't need. So, compared to last year, we're more mindful of what we need instead of just buying something. And so the spontaneity, we just don't do that anymore. And maybe a year ago, two years ago, we would've.
KAUFMAN: The retail environment has changed dramatically, and analyst Patricia Edwards says retailers will have to start rethinking what normal looks like. Consumers, she says, aren't going to be spending what they did in the past, even after the economy turns around.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.
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