The Back-to-School Bust Could Butcher Your Returns


Though it pales in comparison with the all-important holiday season, the back-to-school shopping season is a boon to retailers -- usually, anyway. This year, signs point to a whole different world facing retail stocks. Back-to-school may be a bust.

Hey! Where is everybody?
The New York Timesreported a phenomenon you may have noticed in your own shopping excursions in recent weeks: Many kids and parents are waiting until after school starts to buy clothes and supplies.

According to the article, Wal-Mart (NYS: WMT) reported delayed back-to-school spending, and a tendency to buy only necessities. Office Depot (NYS: ODP) reported that some shoppers waited for lower prices, even on simple, basic supplies such as pens and notebooks.

Oddly enough, even as shoppers penny-pinch on the basics, they may be more willing to buy electronics for back-to-school purposes. American Express Spending and Saving Tracker recently reported that 9% more U.S. shoppers planned to buy e-readers and tablets as "necessities" for students this year.

That's good news for companies such as Apple (NAS: AAPL) and (NAS: AMZN) , perhaps, but probably bad news for the retailers such as Wal-Mart that are relying on having tons of consumers grab up different kinds of inventory.

The changing teen scene
The New York Times pointed to another reason for delayed shopping: a sketchy fashion landscape, where some teens are waiting to see what their peers have deemed the must-have items before committing to their own back-to-school wardrobe. Trends may be in flux, and items like retro-'80s colored jeans and LeSportsac gear could be yesterday's news tomorrow.

The most interesting thing about the teen angle is the idea that, in a departure from the bubbly boom times, even this reason exhibits teens' new frugality and tendency to be choosier about purchases. One of the things that used to be tantalizing about the teen retail space was a demographic that tended to be populated with profligate spenders.

Not anymore, apparently. In May, evidence that many of today's teens dig clothing swaps pointed to a new kind of penny-pinching youngster whose idea of new duds doesn't necessarily mean brand-new. This behavior doesn't bode well for teen retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch, which built brands on full-price, aspirational apparel sales and on teens that come back for more over and over again.

The teen retail landscape is an evolving animal. Many parents have less discretionary money to hand over to kids, and teen unemployment has been high for three years running as youngsters compete with far more experienced and responsible adults for even low-wage jobs. In April, teen unemployment hit 24.9%, and it's even worse in some major urban areas.

Don't go for bust
Back-to-school may be a bust, but it underlines other trends. For example, the American Express survey showed that 68% of parents who responded planned to give up some of their own needs to finance back-to-school purchases for their kids. Such sentiments could hit restaurants, entertainment, and adult clothing purchases.

Furthermore, today news broke that August consumer confidence has plunged to 60.6 from July's 65.4, the biggest decrease since last October. High gas prices and continued unemployment are taking a toll on Americans' sense of economic well-being.

The retail landscape isn't an easy one right now, and retailers of all kinds must balance inventory, consumers' changing habits and fashions, the demand for lower prices, and many other moving parts as the economy continues to stagnate.

As always, the best way to navigate such a climate is to choose the strongest retailers with the best brands. Costco (NAS: COST) and Amazon strike me as solid examples of stable holdings in the space: Both have excellent managements, enjoy tons of customer loyalty, offer discounted prices, and attract many different kinds of shoppers.

If retail stocks are on your shopping list -- or already reside in your portfolio -- remember that the macroeconomic environment is changing the rules of the game. Assess the space carefully, and remember that the difficult consumer spending environment could result in far more losers than winners in that segment in the near term.

If you'd like to read more about's standing and opportunities to become the Wal-Mart of the 21st century, we've created a premium report from one of our top analysts that drills down on the e-commerce giant; learn more.

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Alyce Lomaxowns no shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Costco Wholesale,, and Apple, creating a bull call spread position in Apple, and creating a write covered strangle position in American Express. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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