Parents seek back-to-school shopping bargains
Courtenay Edelhart / Bakersfield Californian
Mother of two Mellissa Barker will spend about the same amount on this year’s back-to-school clothes and supplies as she did last year, but she’s comparison shopping to be sure she gets the best bargains.
“I’m looking around here for now,” said Barker, 37, while perusing clothing racks at Target. “We might go over to Kohl’s a little bit later to see who has the best prices.”
Heidi He, 42, also a mother of two, feels the same way. She can afford to spend more, but is sticking to discount stores such as Target and Walmart because all the bad economic news makes her nervous.
“It’s scary,” she said. “I don’t see things getting better anytime soon.”
The weak economy seemed to be staggering toward recovery until the debt ceiling standoff in Washington that triggered a downgrading of the nation’s credit rating and a massive selloff on Wall Street.
The combination of all those factors has renewed fear of a double dip recession, and the anxiety comes at a key time for retailers in the throes of the back-to-school shopping season.
It’s not that shoppers can’t buy, necessarily.
“Most people can spend as much or more than last year. They’re just choosing not to,” said Jeff Green, a retail consultant based in Phoenix. “A lot of it’s changed just in the last couple of weeks.
“July was pretty good and retailers were hoping they could raise prices in August, but with all the uncertainty, that’s risky now.”
Even if you don’t follow the economy closely, the negative messages are “relentless,” Green said. “You can’t help but absorb it, even subconsciously. People are cutting back without even realizing it.”
Jennifer Wright, 36, is a perfect example.
At Valley Plaza last week with her two children, Wright said she wasn’t worried about the economy. But asked if she would spend as much this year as last year, she said no.
“I spend too much, generally,” she said. “I’m an impulse shopper. So I’m trying to watch what I spend.”
There are, of course, people whose concerns are very real.
Kern County’s unemployment rate rose slightly to 15.3 percent in June, up from 14.9 percent in May, according to California Employment Development Department.
And even people who are working often are struggling with reduced pay and benefits.
Among the beneficiaries of that bleak reality are thrift and resale stores.
Julie Stewart is the manager of Plato’s Closet, a store that buys and sells used brand-name clothing.
“Back-to-school is our Christmas,” she said. “It’s our biggest season.”
Mother of four Michelle Risenhoover, 35, is buying a lot of used merchandise this year.
“I’ve been going to the Salvation Army, yard sales, things like that,” she said.
Risenhoover hasn’t avoided the mall entirely. She dropped by Valley Plaza last week, but only to take advantage of buy-one, get-one-free sales and clearance items.
“I have three part-time jobs right now and I’m on call, which is hard when you have kids, but nobody will hire me full-time,” Risenhoover said.
Chris Carothers, 34, of Porterville, went to Valley Plaza last week to shop for his daughter and his girlfriend’s son. His pay has been cut since last year, so he was on a strict budget, too.
“I’m looking at clearance racks,” he said.
Christine Hennings, owner of the upscale downtown Bakersfield boutique Jezabelle’s, said more affluent shoppers tend to drive to Los Angeles to shop, so her challenge isn’t so much to encourage spending, but to champion the message to shop at home.
“When you shop in Bakersfield, it supports local schools and public safety in our community,” Hennings said. “I’m always trying to convince people to keep those tax dollars here.”
Whether you’re rich or poor, unemployed or working, there’s one fact that isn’t going to change, mom Wright said.
“The economy goes up and down, but kids are growing and they need school clothes,” she said. “There’s no way around it.”