The brightly-colored posters urging shoppers to "buy now for back-to-school" went up along the F Street shopping district in downtown Washington about three weeks ago. But this year, this traditionally festive and busy shopping season for clothes and shoes has been dampened by increasingly limited buying power and a bleak economic and educational outlook for the upcoming school year.
Without excess cash in their wallets, Washington shoppers have waited later to start their back-to-school shopping, stores downtown report. They are buying less, putting more items on layaway for delayed payment, and buying mostly for the immediate present. Winter clothes can wait.
Some store managers attribute some of the delayed buying to the fact that hundreds of youngsters are still waiting for their final paychecks from the city's troubled summer jobs program.
"I'm finding I have to look hard at the prices this year to see if they suit my budget.I'm trying to get in on some of the special sales," said Mary McClam, who was in the G. C. Murphy & Co. department store last week, buying pencils and looseleaf paper for her daughter, Karen, a student at Shaw Junior High.
Leonard Kolodny, manager of the Greater Washington Board of Trade's retail division, said that with the exception of last week, sales downtown were well below a year ago."
"You have to realize, we're not in normal circumstances. We have a recession, inflation . . . there's been unreasonably hot weather," he said.
Kolodny said the sales slump has been particularly hard on stores that sell ready-to-wear items. The back-to-school season is one of their most important ones and usually signals the end of the slow summer buying season and the start of the heavy holiday shopping season.
"The customers are just not buying as much, nor are they buying ahead," said Hy Chabbott, an owner of the Household Discount store on F Street.
"Often this time of year, we have people buying suede or leather jackets in anticipation of the cold weather. But people just don't seem to have the same enthusiasm for buying. Before, people would come in and buy a whole handful of socks, enough to last them a whole season. Now they're buying just two of three pairs," he added.
Chabbott has laid off seven of his 14 employes since January because of slow business.
Chain shoe stores and budget clothing stores that are usually crowded also reported lighter back-to-school trade than in past years. But sales were strong at some stores that cater to a broader market.
"All day long we have kids coming in here buying clothes. They're buying designer clothes. That's all they want. And they're paying cash. Don't ask me where they're getting it from," said Melissa Douglas, a saleswoman in the junior department at Hecht's.
Thalia Jones, who runs Hecht's budget store, said that youths this year don't seem interested in the lower-priced clothing in that department. "The ones that come down here ask for designer jeans, nothing else," Jones said.
One of the hottest selling items at Kinny Shoes, according to manager Vernon Kennedy, is their $24 loafer. "If we sold them for $3, we wouldn't be able to give them away. But sell them for $24 and you can't keep (the shoes) in the store," he said.
Besides the talk of high prices, a constant item for discussion over the clothes racks and cashier's counters is the D.C. public school system, and city's money problems.
Parents are asking how large class sizes will be this year (larger), will their sons and daughters be able to take special courses like driver's education (maybe not), will there still be a school breakfast and lunch program, (yes), and will school even open on time (yes).
Because of the city's financial crisis, the school system had to cut $37 million from its budget this year. In doing so, over 700 teachers were laid off, the prekindergarten program was cut to a half-day and several elective and adult education courses were scrapped.
"At one point, they were saying school wasn't going to open until a month later," said Lillian Brockington, whose 12-year-old-daughter Patricia will enter junior high this week. "I was so afraid of that and so happy when they announced school would open Sept. 4."
The first day of school Thursday, will be a full day of classes for students in the elementary, junior and senior high schools. Breakfast and lunch will be served. Parents of youngsters will be notified at a later date when classes begin for their children, school officials said.
Laura Watson, a saleswoman at Morton's, said she was hoping her son's last year at Wilson would be his best year. Now, with the teacher lay-offs, she's not so hopeful.
"With so many teachers being cut, that just has to make the classes over-crowded. I just don't think the kids are going to pay attention in class," she said.
"I just don't know what teachers (my sons) will have, or how many. I don't know if the good teachers will still be there," said Barbara Rivers, another Morton's saleswoman, who has two sons in the public schools.
"Believe me, if I could, I would take them out of the public schools," she added.
Inez Ray, who lives in Anacostia and sends her children to private schools, said when she read about the District schools' budget cuts in the newspaper, she said to herself, "I'm glad my kids aren't up against that. I'd rather be paying for my kids' education." Ray was at Kinney's on F Street last week, buying her daughter new school shoes.
Unlike their parents, many youths seemed unaware and virutally unconcerned about the budget cuts. The youths, interviewed last week in the downtown area, said instead that they were glad to see an end to the boredom they felt during the summer.
"I'm tired of the summer. I'm tired of the kids where I live always picking fights," said 13-year-old Shernita Peeler, who lives on T Street NE. Shernita, who will attend Langley Junior High this year, was shopping for school supplies at People's Drug Store last week.
Steven Gliss, 17, who is going to Burdick Vocational School this year, said he was happy to get back to school because he did not like his summer job this year. He worked in room service at a hotel.
"I didn't like to keep running from room to room. Sometimes they paid you. Sometimes they didn't." Gliss said he liked better the previous jobs he had held with the city's summer jobs for youth program. "All I had to do the other years was answer the phone," said Gliss, who was buying a pair of jeans at Up Against the Wall."