Retailers More Upbeat on Fall After B-T-S

NEW YORK — While family and children’s retailers continued to face a tough test during the back-to-school season, many storeowners said they are more optimistic about the months ahead.

“Sales were down, but inventory was down as well,” said Jennifer Thomas, co-owner of Piggy Toes in Chicago. “I’m anticipating a stronger October, November and December than we had last year.”

At Footbeats, a children’s store in Holyoke, Mass., overall b-t-s numbers were on par with 2008, although September results have been up slightly.

“[Sales] may have [decrease] a little bit, but I don’t think it’s going to be an awful fall season,” said Footbeats owner Sharon Cohen. “We’ll probably do better in the next few months.”

Roger Brooks, owner of Brooks Shoes for Kids, based in Santa Monica, Calif., said business has been down slightly, but he hopes for a turnaround within the next few months and into early 2010.

Still, the retailer said he does not anticipate consumer spending returning to pre-recessionary levels.

“We believe we’re quite a bit away from the growth patterns we saw years ago,” Brooks said. “The consumer just doesn’t have discretionary funds to buy extra, so they are holding on to things for longer and buying down.”

The key for many storeowners this season has been to keep best sellers in stock and avoid taking risks on untested product.

“If we were still buying the way we were a year ago, we’d be in trouble,” said Thomas. “People have definitely gone back to basics a little bit, so we kept it basic and made sure we had the right pizzazz.”

Another trend that continues to impact retailers is need-based buying. Storeowners said they expect colder temperature to bring consumers back into stores to buy boots and Ugg products.

“[Our fall customers] bought the essentials and then mentioned they would be back for more winter things,” said Danny Wasserman, owner at Tip Top Shoes in New York. “In previous years they shopped and bought everything at once. Now they are spreading that business out.”

Piggy Toes’ Thomas said she noticed a similar pattern among her shoppers.

“The trend used to be that you had to have everything on a certain date. [For instance], on Aug. 15, they would buy everything all at once. That is definitely not happening as much now,” she said.

All told, many retailers said that in such a challenging market, even flat b-t-s sales, or small upticks, helped spark renewed optimism.

“Back-to-school was a slight improvement from last year,” said Gary Weiner, owner of Saxon Shoes in Richmond, Va. “A slight improvement is considered a home run right now.”

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