EUGENE, Ore. (AP) -- In this unsteady economy, family members are pitching in to make sure their youngsters return to school sporting new clothes and shoes and carrying backpacks full of fresh school supplies. And the people out browsing the racks are keeping an eye out for bargains.
Vicki Douglass of Eugene, for example, recently took her two nieces, Taylor Morgan, 17, of Wilsonville, and Marrissa Gaston, 15, of Chiloquin, shopping at Eugene's Valley River Center.
"They're down visiting," Douglass said, as the teens looked around the Aeropostale store. Gaston returned with a white short-sleeved shirt and a royal blue camisole to go underneath it.
"These are two-for-one," Douglass said, holding up the camisole. "Would you like one in another color?" Douglass said she let the girls choose the stores, but she tried to look out for sales and promotions. "I'm more aware of it because I don't work," she said.
"I go to school full time. My husband (a truck driver) rakes in the dough, so he told me to take the girls shopping."
U.S. consumers are expected to spend $55 billion this year on clothes, shoes, electronics and other gear for their students, kindergarten through college age, according to the National Retail Federation. For retailers, back-to-school is the second largest shopping season of the year, topped only by the winter holidays. The average U.S. family will spend $606.40 to outfit their kindergartners through high-schoolers, up from $548.72 last year.
The average college student's family will spend $616.13, down slightly from $618.12 last year, according to the federation's research. More than one-third of it will be spent on electronics, including computers and cell phones, the federation said.
Early this month, traffic began picking up at Valley River, Oakway Center, Gateway Mall in Springfield and other local shopping centers.
And the momentum will continue through September, when a second wave hits college students buying essentials for their dorms and apartments, retailers said.
"In the past couple of weeks it really picked up," said Diana Bray, marketing manager at Valley River Center. "It was a combination of (the cooler) weather and the fact that (school is) getting close. The fall fashions are all in, and (shoppers) get to the point where they're done looking at tank tops and shorts."
Most stores do not disclose sales figures, and corporate chains do not reveal individual store's sales. However, Macy's, which operates 850 Macy's and Bloomingdale's stores in 45 states, including the Macy's at Valley River Center, reported that same-store sales increased 7.3 percent in July.
Macy's, a publicly traded company, attributed the increase to implementation of its core strategies, the strength of Bloomingdale's and the launch of a successful back-to-school season.
At Oakway Center on Coburg Road, Burch's Shoes has noticed an uptick in both back-to-school traffic and spending compared with last year, store manager Sarah Graves said.
"Our advertising is better, too," she said. "We're putting a lot of time into our back-to-school this year. It's a really important part of our business, and a lot of times kids get overlooked." Burch's has been highlighting different brands each week starting in mid-August: Dansko Kids, then Keen, Stride Rite, Ugg and Frye.
"We do a solid four weeks of just back-to-school," Graves said. Founded in 1931, Burch's specializes in measuring feet and getting the right fit, she said. "We have a size and width program, so we don't just carry medium width." That specialty, along with stocking some higher-end brands that other retailers don't carry, and going for the value shoppers at its nearby Shoe Rack store, help attract customers from as far away as the coast, Roseburg and just south of Salem, Graves said.
Steve Korth, director of real estate development for McKay Investment Co., which owns Oakway Center, said the shopping center gets a boost this time of year from families with school-age children, and an even bigger boost from the college crowd.
That's who spends the bulk of back-to-school dollars, according to the National Retail Federation. Projected spending this year on back-to-college merchandise $33.77 billion will surpass the $21.35 billion in spending on K-12 students, the federation said. Oakway Center stores Bed Bath & Beyond, Old Navy and T.J. Maxx are all geared to college students, Korth said.
"There's always the 5,000 new students each year that come to the area, and they really do have to fill up their dorms and apartments not just with clothing, but with home furnishings," he said.
"You have a new influx of students every year, and they fully take advantage of whatever budget their parents have given them." He said he'd characterize back-to-school this year as "a good season not a great season." "I do a lot of reading, and it sounds like they're calling for a flat or slightly better season than last year," Korth said. "I think there's more spending, but not back to the levels before the recession."
With 10.7 percent unemployment in Oregon, it may be awhile before spending returns to pre-recession levels. Meanwhile, families here and throughout the country are minding their budgets.
In the National Retail Federation survey, 17 percent of families with school-age children said all of their purchases were influenced by bargains and coupons, up from 14.7 percent last year.
Jody Larson and her mom, Janet Coleman, both of Junction City, put themselves in that camp. On a recent shopping trip to outfit Larson's daughter, the women said they were hunting down sales. Larson said she has been without work for a year.
"That's the reason I brought mom along," she said. "Grandma gets the bulk of it." Coleman said they began their shopping trip at Old Navy "because they had $10 hoodies and $10 jeans. We knew JC Penney would have a great sale: Spend $50, get $10 off. It's where is your money going to go the farthest."
"We're looking for sales absolute sales, just because money is tighter," she said. "You have to watch every penny." Even Larson's 7-year-old daughter, Sidney McCallum, got in on the act.
"Sidney has been carrying around an (Aeropostale) coupon for jeans, but they don't have jeans small enough,"
Larson said. Instead, she was happy to get a T-shirt and a sweatshirt emblazoned with the popular brand.
"We're looking for sales, absolute sales, just because money is tighter." (Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV 08-30-10 1404PDT