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New fashions are driving the market that didn’t exist last year,” said Ellen Ornato, a spokeswoman for Meriden based Bob’s Stores. It’s the first time in a long time there’s been a major change in fashion trends right at back to school.”

A casual look featuring jeans, denim shirts and hiking boots has been popular for the past few years. But minor modifications from season to season have stirred little excitement among shoppers, retail experts say.

At the same time, customers have been more conservative with their spending, no longer outfitting their children from head to toe with new outfits for school. Apparel has not been a top priority, and customers have been waiting until merchandise goes on sale or until their children can see what their schoolmates are wearing before buying.

What makes slow buying doubly painful is that many retailers count on back to school sales as one of their five hottest selling seasons second behind Christmas for many.

But area retailers this year are counting on a renewed interest in fashion to kick start sales gains. Although they would not quantify those gains in dollars or percentages, Connecticut retailers surveyed said that they would be anywhere from modest to strong.

Anytime you get a new fashion in, business picks up,” said Joseph B. Siegel, vice president of merchandising for the National Retail Federation. It’s kind of been long overdue. We’re overdue for a turnaround.”

Parents nationwide are expected to spend an average of $363 a child for back to school items this year, up 12 percent from last year, according to an American Express retail study of 1,000 consumers.

Clothing will comprise the largest portion of that budget, followed by supplies and textbooks, the survey shows. At the top of the list are jeans, followed by shirts, underwear, sneakers, non denim pants, and coats and jackets.

The survey also found that nearly half of all students are considered style and brand conscious by their parents. The top brand names were Levi’s, followed by Nike, The Gap, Reebok and Guess. Other popular designer labels included Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Polo/Ralph Lauren.

Ornato said Bob’s still expects to sell quite a few pairs of Levi’s jeans and denim or cotton twill shirts. But she said the store expects that consumers will focus more on the new denim fashion styles.

Boys will want baggie jeans by JNCO and BOSS, jersey knits with a lot of zippers and buttons, and ski sweaters with a stripe across the middle, she said. For their feet, Ornato said,
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they will buy new styles from Nike and Vans and Airwalks canvas or suede shoes with high rubber side walls.

Some girls will emulate the boys, even buy jeans that are twice their size, Ornato said. Most will buy hip huggers and fit and flare jeans and polyester pants, which are fitted through the waist and flared through the legs, as wide as 23 inches. The material, which is softer than the denim of last year, is also decorated more around the waist.

For tops, girls will buy fitted short sleeve shirts, even through the early fall, Ornato said. On their feet, they will wear chunky heeled shoes.

Robin Reibel, a spokeswoman for Boston based Filene’s, agreed with Ornato that a major part of back to school business will center on new denim fashion styles. Filene’s also expects to sell a lot of satin, lace and stretch velvet tops for girls looking back to the 1960s. Boys’ fashions, she said, will be retro of the 1960s and 1970s.

Overall, we think there’s a renewed passion for fashion,” Reibel said. Whenever there’s passion and excitement, there are great business opportunities.”

Still, Filene’s and Rocky Hill based Ames Department Stores Inc. are being cautiously optimistic.

Joseph R. Ettore, Ames’ president and chief executive officer, said the discount department store chain has planned just a modest increase in back to school sales. We’re still in the kind of mood where people are watching what they’re buying,” he said.

But although the heaviest back to school selling is at the end of August and just after Labor Day, Ames has already started to see apparel sales pick up. Ettore said those sales have mostly been jeans, but also new merchandise.

Everything that’s new seems to sell when it hits the floor,” Ettore said.

Backpacks have also been big sellers, as have binders, notebooks and themebooks. Especially popular are licensed theme products, such as those decorated with NASCAR race cars and Goose Bumps characters.

The wear and the where

A national survey of 1,000 consumers by American Express identified these trends among back to school shoppers.
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