Back-to-school for retailers

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Published: July 30,2007

Teachers might not be too keen to see the end of summer vacation, but retailers sure are. Outside of the Christmas holiday shopping season, the biggest sales season of the year is for back-to-school shopping.

“We anticipate that this is going to be a very good back-to-school shopping season,” said Andrea Sassle, marketing director for the Turtle Creek Mall, Hattiesburg. “The signs look good. To this point we are competing with post-Katrina sales numbers, so this August and September will be our first truly non-competitive season against post-Katrina. After Katrina, there was a big increase in sales because stores in Slidell, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast closed. We were the only place serving Gulfport to Slidell. So we were up huge double digits for back-to-school through Christmas. We had a huge back-to-school and Christmas because everyone had to replace everything.”

Now two years post-Katrina, Sassle anticipates strong sales. The mall has added new retailers, Over 21 and Hollister, and American Eagle has opened a new, larger store.

There has been a trend in recent years for more schools to require their students to wear uniforms. Hattiesburg has been no exception.

“Several schools in this area are going to uniforms,” Sassle said. “A lot of retailers have gotten savvy to that and are offering more of the khakis and things that will fit in with the uniform code. And, the kids don’t want to wear uniforms on the weekends.”

Michelle Rogers, marketing director for the Edgewater Mall in Biloxi, also said uniform codes don’t seem to be taking a bite out of sales.

“Stores across the Coast carry uniforms,” Rogers said. “But children today tend to be pretty fashion conscious. Even if they wear uniforms at school they want the newest jeans, t shirts or tennis shoes. So it really hasn’t hurt us as one might have imagined.”

Edgewater Mall has had a good summer season. Traffic has been heavy. Rogers expects that bodes well for back-to-school shopping. An added attraction this year will be a 110-ton sand sculpture with a dinosaur theme. Rogers said the theme captures everyone’s imagination, but is particularly popular with children.

What’s hot this year?

“Denim continues to be a strong theme with different washes, distressed looks and different leg lengths,” Rogers said. “Logo t-shirts especially from Aeropostale and American Eagle are popular. Bermuda shorts and plaid shorts for males and females are very big this year. With our weather here, they continue to wear shorts until after Thanksgiving.”

Retailers in Mississippi favor following on the heels of other states and providing a sales tax holiday for the biggest weekend of back-to-school shopping.

“I know the sale tax holiday has been very successful in other states,” Rogers said. “It is something that parents here along the Coast would welcome. Being a parent myself, I would certainly welcome it. Our sales tax here tends to be lower than in some areas like Mobile, Ala., but still the discount could mean a lot for families who have to buy school clothing and supplies for several children. It is a gesture on the state’s part to help families this time of year.”

Consumers need a break especially with gas prices the way they are, said Gail Culpepper, general manager of Leigh Mall in Columbus, which has seen record sales this year that bode well for great back-to-school sales.

“It isn’t more than one weekend,” Culpepper said. “I think it is something the consumers would benefit from.”

Turtle Creek Mall’s Sassle agrees.

“We are hoping that Mississippi will do it,” Sassle said. “The Legislature was close to doing it this year, but it just didn’t happen. My company has three malls in the State of Mississippi: Turtle Creek, Bonita Lakes in Meridian and Pemberton Square in Vicksburg. So, we’re hoping we can pool our resources to encourage the legislature. Our company with a large contingent of malls does a push for state tax free weekends. They report that it is typically a very good sales weekend. If you figure you save 7% to 10% just on not having to pay sales tax, that would a pretty significant difference particularly in back-to-school shopping when you are buying in large quantities.”

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco recently signed a bill creating an annual state sales tax holiday for the first Friday and Saturday of August. Purchases of up to $2,500 will be exempt from the state sales tax. The state is expected to lose approximately $6 million in tax revenues, but Blanco said it was worth it to provide meaningful tax relief to Louisiana’s families.

NFIB state director Ron Aldridge said his organization hasn’t polled its Mississippi members on this issue and does not have a position in Mississippi.

He thinks it might depend on what specific items are exempted from the sales tax as to whether small businesses would receive much benefit.

“Obviously, the buying public benefits by stretching how far their dollar can go,” Aldridge said. “However, in terms of business, the larger stores — Wal-Marts, Targets and Office Depots — would have a greater sales advantage in promoting such a day.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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