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Teens hold off on back-to-school shopping

Jackie Liu, Maddy McAlpine, and Sophia Gerner went shopping before the new school year.
Jackie Liu, Maddy McAlpine, and Sophia Gerner went shopping before the new school year.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

Awilda Moscat walked out of the Forever 21 on Newbury Street with nothing but a pair of pants in her yellow shopping bag. Her friend Kim Ramon left empty-handed. At the peak of what is usually a frenzied time for back-to-school clothes shopping, the high school students feel no pressure to update their wardrobes for the first day of class.

“I want to wait and see if there’s anything new coming out during the year,” said Ramon, 15, of Dorchester. “It doesn’t make sense to buy everything now.”

A number of consumer researchers say Moscat and Ramon are not the only teens forgoing the tradition of August back-to-school shopping by spreading out their apparel spending. A number of factors, including the rise of chains like H&M and Zara, so-called fast fashion retailers that sell inexpensive clothing and turn over their inventories rapidly to stay on trend, may be contributing to the phenomenon.

Trend-savvy teens have always prowled the malls year-round. But typically the bulk of their school clothes were bought in August. Now many are delaying those purchases so that when, for example, cowl neck sweaters emerge as the hot item of November, they can strike quickly.

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Another factor is the influence of the Web, which provides style-savvy shoppers with instant access to fashion shows, news, and the newest trends.

“People have this seriously outdated idea that we’re buying things the way we did 20 years ago,” said consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow, author of “Gen BuY,” about the shopping habits of Millennials. “They have this old-fashioned notion that mom and daughter are going out and buying the majority of their school clothes for the year in August. But it’s nothing like that.”

To be sure, the bulk of back-to-school shopping still takes place at this time of year. The National Retail Federation, which tracks shopping trends and habits, is predicting a 14 percent rise in back-to-school spending in 2012 for both K-12 and college students. That increase encompasses both clothing and school supplies. A 2011 survey conducted by the NRF and the market research company BIGinsight found that back-to-school spending averaged $603.63 per child. For 2012 that number is expected to rise to $688.62 per child. Combined kindergarten through college spending is expected to reach $83.8 billion this year.

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Still, some experts believe the old model of teens shopping for back-to-school clothes almost exclusively this time of year is disintegrating. That was the case with a group of Waltham teens who were strolling Newbury Street recently. While they were casually looking in stores, the foursome said they thought it was ridiculous to buy all their back-to-school clothes before starting school.

“Styles change,” said Sophia Gerner, 16. “It makes no sense to do it now.”

That’s a shift in thinking from back-to-school shopping of yore, when mom and dad took the kids out to buy outfits for the year before school started each fall, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst of the consumer research firm NPD Group.

“We would load up on these 10 outfits,” Cohen said. “But we would get back to school and find out that no one was wearing green corduroy pants. You would show up looking like a goofball, so they never got taken out of the closet again.”

Yarrow, who shops along with teens and 20-somethings for her research, said teens want to be able to buy today what they saw online last week, and some retailers have adapted.

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“Previous generations could say, ‘I’m going to buy a few things now, and buy the rest later.’ But there was no later,” Yarrow said. “And now there really is. There’s a lot to choose from year-round, and that really fits the mentality of this generation so much better.”

The quick expansion of low-priced retailers such as Zara, H&M, and Forever 21 — commonly referred to as purveyors of fast fashion — has helped to alter the shopping landscape. The Swedish chain H&M, which has 10 locations in Massachusetts, reported plans earlier this year to open 275 stores globally, bringing its numbers to more than 2,500 stores in 44 countries.

Stores like H&M are successful with teens because they respond rapidly to trends, shopping analysts say. In a 2010 case study of Zara, Columbia Business School professor Nelson Fraiman found that the Spanish retailer can turn a fashion idea into a fully realized garment in two weeks. As a result, Zara offers about 15,000 styles each year — five times the number of a typical retailer such as the Gap.

They also create smaller batches of clothing, so inventory is constantly changing with trends. If, say, gold pants are suddenly the rage, they can be available to the consumer quickly. In doing so, these stores encourage trend-conscious teens to shop year-round, experts say.

“The stores are replenished twice a week with very few garments. You know if you don’t buy it then, it may not be there the next time you go,” Fraiman said. “They don’t have seasons, they just produce new styles. It makes sense that would change the way that students shop for back-to-school.”

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Because of those ever-changing fashions, Fraiman found people are motivated to shop frequently at Zara and stores like it: an average of 17 visits per year, compared to only a handful per year at the Gap.

“These teens want newness, they want change, and stores like Zara and H&M fit that perfectly,” said Petah Marian, news and insights editor of the consumer research group Just-Style. “There’s social media, there are fashion blogs, and there are images constantly coming out of fashion weeks around the world.”

Teens especially find that ever-changing selection at H&M and Forever 21, two stores that put out new stock daily, said Elizabeth Cline, author of “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.”

The ability to monitor fashion updates on websites such as www.style.com , to see what celebrities are wearing on gossip sites, and to view Instagrams of what their friends are buying all stoke the desire to be on trend among teens.

It also appears that they know a bargain. NPD’s Cohen said many teens are waiting to shop because they know that fall merchandise is marked down later in the season. He said there are not yet figures on year-round school clothes shopping, but the investment bank and asset management firm Piper Jaffray found that year-round teen spending on clothing appears to be inching upward this year. A spring 2012 survey found that teens plan to spend 39 percent of their income on clothes, up from 37 percent the previous year.

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Kathy Grannis, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, said that in growing up in the Internet era, teens generally do not make large purchases without online comparison shopping first.

“We’re looking at a more aware generation,” Grannis said of anecdotal information she has received through retailers. “There’s no doubt that it will lead to new shopping patterns.”

Bargains or not, 17-year-old Darla Clark of Scituate was quite certain that she will wait to do her school clothes buying until later.

“At the beginning of the [school] year, I have a tendency to buy a lot of unnecessary stationery,” she said. “But I always hold off on clothes.”


Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.