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Retailers polish websites for back-to-school

| Saturday, July 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

After uninspiring sales in the first half of the year, retailers are hustling to salvage a back-to-school shopping season that got off to a muted start.

Parents, worried about the economy and pressed for time, plan to spend less money and do more school-related shopping online, surveys show.

To chase elusive customers, many retailers are sprucing up websites and offering special online deals.

For the first time, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is posting school uniforms on its online Classrooms by Wal-Mart database. The products are listed on lineups digitized by thousands of schools nationwide. Other school items bought via Wal-Mart's website will be shipped free of charge, the chain said.

Target Corp.'s online uStyler tool helps students curate personalized looks and design virtual rooms that they can share on social media. And the Checklist option creates customized product recommendations that can be printed at home or at a Target registry kiosk.

Sears Holdings Corp. says it's the first retailer to offer e-coupons — customized to loyalty club members' style preferences and shopping habits — redeemable in stores, online and from a mobile device. Items bought online can be picked up, or shoppers can get car-side delivery by texting their parking spot number.

“Online's on fire,” said Rodney Davenport, chief economist of Alliance Data Systems Corp., which conducted a back-to-school survey.

Consumers are expected to spend less to prepare for the fall semester, according to a survey released Thursday by the National Retail Federation.

Families with school-age children will shell out an average of $634.78 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics, down nearly 8 percent from a record high of $688.62 last year, the retail trade group says. College students and their parents will pay out $836.83 on average — a 7.8 percent slide from 2012. Total estimated back-to-school spending will reach $72.5 billion.

The average family remains stressed about the economy. Eighty percent of parents told the retail group it will affect their back-to-school spending. More than three-quarters of college shoppers said the same; more than a third plan to buy generic or store-brand products and look for discounts.

The trade group found that 18.5 percent of parents plan to shop online more often. A report from NPD Group Inc. expects a 3 percent boost in online sales. A separate study from Alliance Data found that 71 percent of consumers will use smartphones to compare prices or download coupons.

Nearly half of Alliance respondents said they plan to pay with a credit card rather than a debit card, a decision that helps with online buying and often comes with more loyalty points and discounts.

Yet the bulk of consumers will continue to do back-to-school shopping in stores, according to researchers. And many are getting a head start.

About half of shoppers for K-12 students will start their hunt three weeks to a month before school starts and more than a third of college consumers said the same, according to the retail federation.

Nearly three in 10 households have begun browsing retailers' selections, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers — the highest percentage of any year but one since 2004.

Retailers are using discounts and promotions to go after shoppers.

Wal-Mart shelves feature more than 250 items of school supplies priced at less than $1. The chain expects to sell 42 million boxes of crayons during the season. Stores will set aside relevant goods in a section dubbed Teacher's Corner.

At Office Depot Inc. stores, there's an exclusive collection of binders, pens and other back-to-school supplies featuring images of boy band One Direction and anti-bullying messages, each costing less than $10.

Old Navy, a division of Gap Inc., is discounting school uniforms and backpacks in stores and running deals online. Macy's Inc. is setting up events with Vogue, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Glamour and InStyle magazines to offer in-store style consultations, shopping parties, runway shows and makeovers. J.C. Penney Co. is giving out free customization kits with craft materials for each backpack or pair of shoes bought starting Aug. 1.

Target is furnishing freestanding, glass-enclosed Live Dorm Rooms on five college campuses throughout August and September, enabling students a glimpse of its products in action. The chain is continuing its tradition of busing incoming freshmen to after-hours shopping events at stores.

Although shoppers are price-conscious, some have what NPD analyst Marshal Cohen calls “frugality fatigue.”

“Instead of living on a tight budget every day, consumers are feeling a little more comfortable and confident,” Cohen said. “In a big change since the recession, parents are letting their kids have a say in what they want to buy.”

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