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Calendar for school is fixed — but not for back-to-school sales

While some retailers started back-to-school specials as early as June, those pencils, backpacks and other supplies are likely to be even cheaper in the late summer.Rick Wilking/REUTERS/File

When it comes to back-to-school sales, retailers and shoppers are not on the same calendar.

The old strategy of holding special sales months before the start of a season is catching up with stores. Shoppers are much more comfortable waiting, largely because retailers are constantly adding new sales through the year. So while some retailers started back-to-school specials as early as June, those pencils, backpacks and other supplies are likely to be even cheaper in the late summer, just before school resumes.

“The best sales are in September right after school starts because everyone already got their stuff,” said Daphne Alerte of Northbridge as she shopped at a Target store in Dorchester on Friday.


This year, many retailers began selling school products before families took their first summer vacation. But those goods will be on clearance by the time shoppers start thinking about buying clothes or rulers, which will hurt overall retail sales, said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at NPD Group in New York. “Retailers are heading in one direction and consumers are heading in another,” Cohen said.

Indeed, a recent study from the National Retail Federation estimated back-to-school sales will fall 9 percent this season. And the overall shopping climate remains soft for retailers. IHS Global Insight expects retail sales to grow 3.5 percent, to $608 billion, from July to September — the weakest increase for the period since 2012.

Consumers surveyed by the retailers group said they plan to shop later in the summer than last year; 80 percent will wait until a month before school starts or later.

Lauren Gillihan of South Boston said her family is still in summer mode. She won’t start buying supplies for her two daughters until school begins.

“We are not looking for school supplies right now,” Gillihan said Friday, standing in a toy aisle at Target with her children. “We are kind of relaxing.”


For decades, stores rolled out the next season’s products months in advance. Cohen said it started as a way to beat competitors with the latest trends, and to end up with less leftover inventory later on. It is why department stores sell swimsuits in February and winter coats in the middle of the summer.

But the savvy shopper of today isn’t buying into the old retail model. The recession taught shoppers to hunt for deals and wait for sales. Now consumers buy based on price, not the calendar, Cohen said.

Another concern for retailers is a lack of new gadgets to entice shoppers to stores. Last year Apple released the iPhone 6 in September, but there are no major releases of smartphones or tablets this summer. In fact, global tablet and smartphone sales are slowing.

Back-to-school is typically the second biggest shopping period of the year behind the winter holiday season. Analysts say the “Christmas Creep,” where holiday sales are starting earlier each year, is hurting back-to-school sales as the two shopping periods bleed together.

In recent years retailers have bumped up the Christmas shopping season, with many introducing holiday sales in early November. Some shoppers are postponing computer and other electronic purchases for school, hoping to find better sales during the holidays, said Chris Christopher, an economist with IHS.

“People have learned that if they wait a little bit longer that new cellphone or laptop will be discounted pretty heavily during the holiday retail season,” Christopher said. “That’s been playing a stronger and stronger role in the back-to-school season.”


Globe correspondent Jessica Geller contributed to this report. Taryn Luna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @TarynLuna.