• The back-to-school season finds consumers in the mood for bargains and deals

Consumers have propped up the U.S. economy for the past year while businesses slashed purchases as well as payrolls. But shoppers tightened their purse strings during the recent back-to-school season.

Retail sales overall grew by eight-tenths of 1 percent nationally, which was enough for economists to label the growth 'robust.'

But it was robust only because big-ticket items were selling briskly Ñ cars and houses, fueled by low mortgage rates and car loan rates that in some cases included offers of no-interest loans for up to five years.

Back-to-school store traffic, however, was thin. Sales of clothing and accessories, which dropped 1.1 percent in July, fell another three-tenths of 1 percent in August.

Although Meier & Frank stores in Portland bustled last month, thanks to promotions and discounts, same-store sales for parent company May Department Stores Co. fell 8.6 percent in August, far more than the 2.6 percent drop that Wall Street analysts had predicted.

May Co.'s year-to-date sales also decreased, down 4.3 percent from 2001 figures.

Same-store sales Ñ a measure of volume at stores open a year or more Ñ is the gauge that most analysts use to judge retail trends.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Saks Inc. also had lower same-store sales figures for August. Nordstrom Inc. bucked the trend, reporting a slight increase of two-tenths of 1 percent. Preliminary year-to-date sales for Nordstrom, however, showed an improvement in the Seattle-based retailer's bottom line: up 4.8 percent, to $3.3 billion from $3.2 billion a year ago.

Nationally, even discounters felt the pinch. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. both failed to meet Wall Street's expectations. Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, posted a growth rate in same-store sales of 3.8 percent, undershooting the 4.4 percent rise that had been projected. Target's same-store sales, which were expected to rise 1.1 percent, actually fell one-tenth of 1 percent.

At the Lloyd Center mall, spokeswoman Rosemary White said back-to-school sales figures haven't been totaled. But after talking to individual store owners, she said, 'My sense is, we did well. People have certain needs for going back to school; I think parents did the best they could to fulfill those needs.'

A survey by the International Mass Retail Association, based in Arlington, Va., predicted that parents would spend an average of $483 on each schoolchild's clothing and supplies, 5.4 percent more than last year.

Pinch those pennies

But Portland's weak economy definitely put consumers on the hunt for bargains.

White said Lloyd Center, which has more than 200 stores, offered a special promotion in August: Anyone who bought $200 worth of back-to-school merchandise on any single Saturday got a $20 mall gift certificate.

Elsewhere, thrifty shoppers included Alissa Moxley of Portland, who shopped at Goodwill stores for dressy clothes for her new job at Christian Copyright Licensing Inc.

'Dress pants, dresses, dress shirts, suit jackets, all kinds of sweaters,' Moxley, a recent graduate of City Christian High School, said as she checked the racks at the Gresham Goodwill store. 'It's helped me save a lot of money.'

Her best Goodwill find: a new pair of trendy Steve Madden shoes for $9.99 instead of the $70 to $80 they would have cost in a department store.

Another Goodwill shopper, Robin Poetz of Corbett, asked, 'Doesn't everybody love a good bargain?' as she considered whether to spend $4.99 for a like-new Liz Claiborne blouse for her daughter in Florida. 'This is just fun for me.'

Laughing, Poetz said, 'I'm so cheap I try to shop the color of the day,' a reference to the 50 percent discount that Goodwill offers each week on price tags of a specified color.

Goodwill spokeswoman Dale Emanuel said back-to-school sales leaped 12.4 percent ahead of last year at the retail thrift stores owned by Goodwill Industries of the Columbia-Willamette.

The surge was boosted by a weekend promotion late in August that offered a 25 percent discount to the more than 20,000 members of Club Goodwill, which is open to all customers at no cost.

'We kept telling staff, 'It will calm down after this weekend,' and it didn't,' Emanuel said. 'We didn't advertise for a year, and this year we are on cable and prime-time news; we're hitting pretty hard, and that has helped.'

Columbia-Willamette Goodwill Ñ which has 30 retail stores in a territory that takes in Portland; Clark County, Wash.; the Willamette Valley; the north Oregon Coast; The Dalles to the east; and Bend to the south Ñ continues to lead the nation in its results.

Per-square-foot sales in its thrift stores averaged $176 in 2001; in 1989 it was $71. The average nationwide last year was $72. Per-square-foot sales in 2001 at the Vancouver store topped out at $275.

For most retailers, the next big sales milestone will be the day after Thanksgiving, which will give an indication of what the holiday shopping season will be like.

On the waterfront

Of course, with the holidays approaching, retailers could have another worry: that a West Coast dockworkers dispute could snarl cargo bound for stores from Asian export markets.

Ports along the Pacific Coast handle vast quantities of clothing, toys and electronic goods, accounting for more than half of all U.S. trade. Hang those statistics on another set of figures Ñ about a fourth of annual sales come during the year-end holiday season Ñ and the concern is noteworthy indeed.

Most of Target's imports come through West Coast ports, for example. But spokesmen for many of the big retailers, including Federated Department Stores Inc., Target and Wal-Mart, said their companies have prepared for a possible disruption. Some ordered early; others are diverting deliveries to ports in Mexico, Canada and the East Coast.

The tension mounted when negotiators for the International Longshore Workers Union broke off talks with the Pacific Maritime Association over the Labor Day weekend. But the talks have since resumed.

Contact Jeanie Senior at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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