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Retailers have a lot riding on this year's back-to-school buying season

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It's billed as the second biggest shopping season of the year -- Christmas is still No. 1 -- so Manitoba retailers have a lot riding on this year's back-to-school buying blitz.

"It's certainly a very important retail sales period. Especially for those retailers who kind of focus on products that students are going to require as they head back to school," said Lanny McInnes, director of the Prairie region for the Retail Council of Canada.

That includes stores that carry a lot of children's clothing, school/office supplies and teaching/educational products. McInnes said this time of the year can account for more than 15 per cent of their yearly sales, although for most stores it's probably closer to five to 10 per cent.

Maureen Atkinson, senior partner with Toronto retail consulting firm J.C. Williams Group, said the back-to-school shopping season is especially important in today's dog-eat-dog retail environment.

"Generally in retail, everything is fierce right now. It's very competitive," Atkinson said in an interview. "It hasn't been a banner year retail wise, so everyone is looking for ways to improve their numbers. And back to school is very important in terms of improving their sales."

She said back-to-school shopping patterns have been shifting a bit in recent years.

"It's been moving from more clothing and school-supplies oriented to more electronics oriented," she explained, as a growing number of students shift to using portable computers and tablets instead of pens and paper.

"And for some retailers that's good, because it means more money," she added. "A laptop and a calculator are a lot more expensive than a pad of paper."

The jury seems to be out on whether this year's back-to-school season is going to be better, worse or about the same as last year, when the Canadian retail industry saw its biggest jump in sales -- 3.7 per cent -- since the 2008-09 financial crisis.

EY Canada, which is member of Ernst & Young Global Ltd., predicts sales will be about the same, while BMO Capital Markets is forecasting a three and a half to four per cent increase in spending.

And McInnes said a recent informal polling of some of the council's local members showed most of them are also expecting a year similar to last year.

"There are some who think it might be a little softer. But most are expecting it to be as good or a little better," he said.

Deanna Otto, a Gladstone, Man. mother of four, made a special trip to Winnipeg Thursday with her three daughters -- Brooklyn, 17, Storm, 13, and Cadence, 11, -- for a daylong shopping blitz at the Polo Park Shopping Centre.

Otto said she expects to spend at least $200 more this year than last -- roughly $700.

She has found as her children get older, it's costing more to meet all of their back-to-school needs.

"Right now, we're looking for clothes and backpacks and shoes," she said as the four of them took a mid-day break on a mall bench. "And later this afternoon, it will be school supplies -- pencils, binders, pens..."

Otto said they scored good deals on some of the clothing they bought, which is in keeping with what retail analysts are saying is a highly competitive retail environment these days.

Third-year Winnipeg university student Samantha Taylor also unearthed a few deals while searching for a new backpack and jeans at the Polo Park mall.

"There always seems to be student discounts for clothes in August. In some stores it's 10 to 15 per cent."

The 20-year-old said she expects to spend about the same amount as last year.

Although she had her mom, Marni Baltessen, with her Thursday, it was Taylor who was making most of the purchasing decisions.

"I'm just here for moral support," her mom added.

Polo Park general manager Deborah Green said the back-to-school shopping season was in full swing this week at the mall. She said the season is lasting a little longer than it used to, starting in late July when school-supplies retailers start pumping out their advertising flyers and stretching well into September as some students delay the bulk of clothing purchases until they see what other students are wearing.

Green said some of the hottest-selling products this year at Polo Park are backpacks, jeans, footwear and athletic wear. St. Vital Centre general manager Cheryl Mazur said fall jackets, fashion accessories, portable computers and smartphones are also selling well.

Mazur said it seemed to take a little longer for the back-to-school shopping season to hit high gear this year, and she attributed that to the hot, sunny weather during the first few weeks of August.

"I think people were really enjoying the weather outside. I hate to use the weather thing, but I do think it's because our summer arrived so late..."

murray.mcneill@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2014 B6

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